The year that was 2008Published 11:12am Thursday, January 1, 2009
It happened again. Every year, Austin and its surrounding communities have no shortage of important and interesting news stories. The year 2008 was no different. The Herald staff has chosen and compiled the following list to highlight the Top 10 biggest stories from the past year. They are:
involving Austin Police Captain Curt Rude
No story drew more emotion, attention or controversy in 2008 than our Story of the Year: Austin Police Capt. Curt Rude’s criminal charges and election to the school board.
In a hotly-contested election with a platform to address alleged staff reductions and micromanagement of superintendent Candace Raskin, Rude was elected to the board with the second-most votes ever in a school board election.
On the night of the election, Dec. 6, 2007, Rude allegedly took two bottles of the prescription drug OxyContin — which had belonged to his friend and former KAAL-TV reporter Mark Johnson, who allegedly died from an overdose — from the police department’s evidence room. He was later charged with felony theft, felony fifth-degree controlled substance crime and gross misdemeanor interference with property in official custody.
Now on unpaid leave from the police department, Rude made his first appearance in Mower County Court Jan. 7, 2008, when he pleaded not guilty to the charges.
That same day, Rude was elected to clerk on the school board during their first meeting of the year.
“I feel extremely gratified to be elected clerk,” Rude told media crowded at the courthouse and district administration conference room Jan. 7.
“Your mere presence here will be a distraction,” board member Kathy Green told Rude.
Newly elected board members Don Fox, Diana Wangsness and incumbent Dick Lees have supported Rude throughout his ordeal; they were referred to as the majority “bloc” during the election.
“I hope we are not punishing students before they are guilty,” Lees said.
Despite a petition asking Rude to resign or go on leave and public protest during meetings earlier in the year, Rude maintained his post on the board.
Rude’s court appearances have since been moved to Olmsted County because of judge conflicts. A request to dismiss the theft charge was denied by Judge Kevin Lund in December.
His next court appearance, a settlement conference and plea hearing, has been scheduled for Jan. 22.
Rude has three years left in his term on school board.
2) Austin floods again
In June, five and a half inches of rainfall poured down overnight, causing flooding throughout the county, according to county engineer Mike Hanson and emergency management director Wayne Madson. The southern tier of townships suffered road and bridge damages after severe rains fell June 7.
Racine, Grand Meadow and Frankford township in the northeast corner of the county were hit hard. In a span of 72 hours, Congressman Tim Walz, Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty all visited Austin after flood waters started to recede dramatically.
3) The proposed jail and justice center
While it hasn’t happened yet, the proposed Mower County Jail and Justice Center project has been big news in the community the past year. The project comes with a $36 million price tag and is slated to begin construction in 2009.
4) The grand opening of the Hormel Institute
There was much fanfare and numerous thank yous at The Hormel Institute Expansion Celebration in October. The 66-year-old research facility added a $23.4 million addition, with eventually employing 100 new staff members, most of who have been given a big assignment — finding a cure for cancer.
5) Wal-Mart Supercenter opens
After months of waiting, it finally opened. Wal-Mart shoppers applauded the grand opening of store No. 4257 in July. Shoppers filled the front entrance closest to the grocery portion of the new store and started to line up 15 minutes before the opening ceremony. Shoppers and dignitaries from both Austin and Wal-Mart were on hand for the ceremony that introduced Wal-Mart to the city of Austin and featured an official ribbon-cutting with the Chamber Ambassadors and store manager Lee Kruse.
6) QPP illness
More than a dozen workers at Quality Pork Processors were diagnosed with a mysterious neurological disorder called progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN) after being exposed to brain tissue at the “head table” of the Austin plant.
QPP was one of three hog processing facilities in the United States that utilized the method of compressed air to remove pigs’ brains.
The exact cause of PIN — which causes pain, fatigue and numbness — is still under investigation.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, “the workers developed an immune response to the exposure and in turn their own immune system cross-reacted with their own nervous system.”
On Nov. 29, former and current workers affected by PIN demonstrated outside QPP, claiming the facility is not respecting their medical restrictions or processing their workers’ compensation claims.
7) Austin’s Angela McDermott is crowned Miss Minnesota
Austin’s own Angela McDermott won the Miss Minnesota pageant in June and will compete for the Miss America crown this month. According to her mother, Jean, McDermott, 24, was crowned following tornado warnings at Eden Prairie High School’s Performing Arts Center.
8) The Main Street Project
The Austin Main Street Project embarked on an ambitious program of assisting in the renovation and rehabilitation of downtown properties. In December, the Austin Main Street Project hosted a walking tour of the refurbished businesses in the downtown area. The self-guided tour featured various participating business and included: Granle’s Custom Framing and Art Gallery; Healing Palms; Masonic Temple; Hastings Shoe Service; Mike Flaherty Painting; the historic First National Bank building; Mikey’s; B&J Bar and Grill; South Central Athlete; Austin Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department offices; and Rydjor Bike Shop.
9) Mayoral recount/election
The Nov. 4 General Election was an historic occasion for the country as voters elected Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States. On a local level, Mower County had its own excitement as the Austin mayor’s race was separated by 39 votes and went to a recount. Incumbent Tom Stiehm received 47.40 percent of the vote, while challenger Mark Nagle received 47.05 percent of the vote. Stiehm and Nagle split the 1st Ward’s two precincts. Stiehm emerged victorious in the 2nd Ward’s two precincts, and Nagle won both precincts in the 3rd Ward. In the end, Stiehm retained his seat.
10) Austin Medical Center Expansion
The Austin Medical Center’s expansion began in 2005 and continues to be an on-going process.
The new hospital floors and clinic floors were opened in December 2007 through January 2008. The clinic addition includes a 15,600-square-foot, two-story addition above the main entrance building that includes 39 new patient exam rooms with space for 15 current primary care physicians in family medicine and internal medicine. The hospital addition includes a 34,800-square-foot, four-story addition onto the south side of the hospital.