There was much to celebrate and much to mourn in 2015.
Wellington weathered an exciting election year, dealt with turmoil as its schools struggled with cuts, endured scandals, and was swept up in national events.
Each year, the Enterprise staff looks back through our pages, getting a bearing on where we’re heading by remembering where we’ve been. This time, our short list of potential top 10 stories wasn’t very short at all.
Just missing the cut were articles detailing plans for construction of a $1.5 million electrical substation, new school principals, the sudden departure of Main Street Wellington director Mike Eppley, cuts at the Herrick Memorial Library, and bird flu worries that affected the Lorain County Fair.
We also refrained from putting too much emphasis on big headlines resulting from fires and violence — though as you’ll see, there are still a couple of those entries on this list. Exciting as those can be, our top 10 stories mostly reflect events that will have long-term effects on Wellington.
1) Nov. 5: Schneider named mayor in tight decision
Only 43 votes. That’s the slim margin by which village councilman Hans Schneider was catapulted forward on Election Day to become the next mayor of Wellington.
He earned 620 votes to opponent Patti Young’s 577 — a difference of just 3.6 percent — to succeed longtime mayor Barbara O’Keefe.
“There’s big shoes to fill up there now,” Schneider said. “She set the bar high. I’m going to work hard to reach that bar… I’m here to work for the community. I’m going to sit down with our employees and find out how we can best serve our residents.”
O’Keefe’s 22 years as mayor were celebrated in early December with a party at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.
“She is the most hardworking and loyal person – she is loyal to the business, her town, and her church,” said Steve Krakomperger, owner of Village Market, where O’Keefe has worked 54 years.
O’Keefe came to politics when former mayor Bud Handley died unexpectedly while on vacation. She filled out the remainder of his term and then won all her bids for re-election.
She dabbled with retirement from the mayoral post four years ago, but chose to run again (against Schneider) to see Wellington through construction of its new railway underpass.
O’Keefe said she plans to continue working with the Wellington senior bus, might dip her toe into Well-Help, and is leaving the door open for other opportunities.
“I’m not quitting completely, but I’m going to take a few different paths,” she said.
2) Dec. 3: At long last, traffic flows through Wellington underpass
Long-debated, long-fought, long-in-the-works, and long-overdue — those are all terms that could accurately be applied to Wellington’s railway underpass on Rt. 58.
The $13 million structure opened in late November to great acclaim after two-and-a-half years of work.
Of course, it’s not finished quite yet. Originally marked for completion in August 2014, work is set to linger through June, mainly on curbing and beautification efforts.
“I think this project is one we can be proud of. It is pleasing to the eye. It will help to alleviate traffic congestion. And most importantly, we will no longer have the heavy train traffic as a barrier to our safety services performing their important work,” said outbound mayor Barbara O’Keefe at its opening ceremony.
“Our hope is the community sees it as a success,” said ODOT public information officer Joyce Miller. “It’s really a testament of the community and Wellington. It’s beautiful.”
Immediately, we heard positivity flow from residents long-frustrated with being held up by the approximately 75 trains per day that pass through Wellington.
“Thank you, mayor O’Keefe and everyone who had a hand in getting this done. It looks awesome and the way it was designed it looks like it was meant to be there,” wrote resident Loretta Dominco on the Enterprise Facebook page.
3) Dec. 10: Epic move to new McCormick
Goodbye to an old era and hello to a new one: Generations of Wellington students will be defined by which McCormick Middle School they attended.
Asbestos is being removed from the old school on the village’s south side as demolition nears. The former middle school was cleared of all desks, computers, and teaching materials in a huge effort to move to the newly-constructed building next to Wellington High School.
The new digs were met with approval.
“It’s 10 times better than the old McCormick,” said Troy Cole, a ninth-grader who helped move boxes at the new building. “The classrooms, the front door, the gymnasium, the auditorium, the hallways.”
“It’s unbelievable,” said resident Terry Mazzone, who supported efforts to build the new school. “It’s an educational environment that Wellington students deserve.”
Residents passed a bond issue, paying for 63 percent of the $19.7 million building, which included $3.1 million in donations for a new auditorium.
The old McCormick building will be torn down to make way for a village park. Bricks will be for sale so you can keep a piece of the school close.
4) Feb. 19: Schools deliver layoffs in $2.4M budget scale-back
It wasn’t pretty. In order to survive, the Wellington Schools needed to make deep cuts. Interim district superintendent Stanley Mounts was brought in to be the hatchet man.
A week before delivering the bad news to the board of education, he warned village officials that $2.4 million in cuts were coming — and teachers and other staff would be on the chopping block.
“I think the board of education needs to try and get its finances in order to regain the trust of the community,” Mounts said. “Eighty-five percent of our budget or more is salary and benefits.”
Enrollment dropped by 400 students over the past eight years while staffing levels had stayed level, he said.
Twenty full-time positions were cut and more than a dozen others had hours reduced. Several Dukes athletic teams were shut down, pay-to-play fees were edged upward, and there were also curbs placed on summer school, field trips, tutoring, and software purchases. Full-day kindergarten was eliminated.
“I do not like making these recommendations but someone needs to try to get the Wellington Exempted Village School District on a financial plan that will help ensure the existence of the district for the next decade,” interim superintendent Stan Mounts said before he gave his recommendation to the board.
The budget cuts were a response to dire predictions by then-treasurer Brad McCracken, who had just taken over for departed treasurer Suzanne Wilson. After taking a look at her books, McCracken told the school board it was in a deeper hole than it realized.
Without immediate and severe cuts, he warned, the school system was ready for financial collapse, possibly even dissolution.
Kindergarten was reinstated by the board this fall and several teachers were called back. Donors helped reinstate some sports teams, at least temporarily, and others gave cash to keep police on patrol inside Wellington schools for a few months.
New treasurer Michael Pissini said at year-end that the district is recovering but not out of the woods.
“The trend is that we are controlling our expenditures much better, specifically in the area of salaries and benefits and fringe wages because of the cuts that were made previously,” he said.
Those gains appear to be stop-gaps without new revenue to help right the ship. Education officials have said they are exploring levy options.
5) March 26: Dennis Mock chosen to lead Wellington Schools
The past year has seen Wellington weather three school superintendents, from the departure of embattled district head John Nolan to short-term leader Stanley Mounts, and finally to permanent super selection Dennis Mock.
He was chosen from a pool of 21 candidates to lead the Wellington Schools in a time of financial trouble, political divide, scandal, and building construction.
Mock hailed from the Genoa Area Local Schools in Ottawa County close to Toledo, where he had served since 1994.
In his 21 years there, he dealt with looming deficits, cutting $4 million in spending over a 10-year span — experience in demand as the Wellington Schools cut $2.4 million from the budget and look for new revenue streams.
“It just enticed me that some of the challenges Wellington is facing are the same,” Mock said.
He was hired on a three-year contract.
In his first months on the job, Mock has made healing old wounds a priority, seeking to improve communication with the community.
6) Feb. 5: Camera lenses now capture WPD encounters
Your-word-against-mine situations are dangerous and frustrating. By wearing personal body cameras, Wellington police are removing some of that ambiguity from the equation.
The WPD became the second law enforcement agency in Lorain County after Oberlin to equip every officer with a mandatory body camera, purchasing 18 for roughly $20,000.
The devices constantly run, capturing 30-second intervals. They only save footage, though, once officers push the record button.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” said police chief Tim Barfield. “It’ll make that policeman a better policeman, it makes us more accountable for ourselves, and it’ll certainly help the public.”
Patrol officers cannot delete video. They can only download and watch the footage, while Barfield and Sgt. Jeff Shelton are the only ones with access to delete it.
Officers are also not allowed to turn off the camera unless stating a reason why first. Acceptable deactivation of the video could include talking about confidential or sensitive information.
Body cameras have been in use by large police departments across the nation for years.
But a call for their widespread adoption and regulation came in the wake of several high-profile police brutality incidents, including the shooting death of Michael Brown in Missouri last August, which sparked riots.
Questions remain about how such video accounts are handled here in Ohio — whether they are public record or evidence that can be suppressed during investigations.
7) Aug. 6: Firefighters wrestle with horrific year
It was a deadly summer in Lorain County. Just ask Wellington fire chief Mike Wetherbee, who by August was inundated with calls for help.
No fire chief wants to set a record, but Wetherbee assured us his crews were on pace. At the time, that meant five crash fatalities.
The death toll has since ballooned to 11, all from crashes but none from fire, assistant chief Bill Brown confirmed.
While motorcycle crashes have dwindled, distracted driving is a suspected contributor to the hazardous state of the roadways in the Wellington fire district.
“We don’t have any solid proof that that’s been the cause of any of our accidents but driver distraction is a big thing,” Wetherbee said. “Driver distraction is huge because everybody’s in a hurry to get somewhere nowadays and if they can drive and do something else at the same time they’re saving time whether it’s eating or putting on makeup.”
8) Oct. 22: Dukes stadium bleachers deemed unsafe
An insurance inspector deemed the Dukes stadium bleachers on Dickson Street unsafe and unusable just before the final home football game of the season.
Ohio School Plan, the district’s insurance agent, said it could not insure the structure due to wooden seating boards that are in bad shape.
The ruling came shortly after an Oct. 9 game during which a board near the top of the bleachers snapped in half under a spectator’s weight. No one was hurt.
At the same time, Ohio School Plan also partially condemned the concession stand, restroom, and away team locker room structure under the bleachers, citing mold and asbestos concerns.
Lad Harrison of Brother’s Chevrolet stepped forward to provide temporary bleachers for the Dukes’ last home game but the Wellington Schools faced the prospect of a prohibitively expensive renovation to the athletic complex.
Then the North Olmsted school system stepped up. The district is rebuilding its stadium to the tune of $5.9 million, thanks to a voter-approved levy, and decided to donate its cast-away metal bleacher benches and other equipment to Wellington.
The price tag? A mere $3,000 plus labor, saving cash-strapped Wellington an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 in construction costs.
The gift includes new lighting for the Dukes soccer fields, press box windows, and fencing.
9) Aug. 6: Body found in suspicious fire on Peck Wadsworth
Homicide accusations came swiftly in the wake of an Aug. 4 house fire apparently set to cover the death of 45-year-old Eric Zaffer.
Bishop Howard, 18, Ryan Crews, 21, and Trevor White, 19, were all indicted on counts of aggravated robbery in relation to the Brighton Township incident. White and Crews were also charged with murder and Howard was charged with aggravated murder.
A 911 call tipped rescue crews to flames at the rural home. Once the fire was doused, they found Zaffer inside with a bullet wound to the chest.
Howard admitted to pulling the trigger, according to Lorain County sheriff’s deputies.
The alleged slaying may have been motivated by drugs, according to deputies. Marijuana plants were found outside a Greensview Drive home in Carlisle Township where Howard and Crews resided.
Pot was also found at the Peck Wadsworth home where Zaffer’s body was discovered.
The shooting appeared to have taken place during a breaking and entering, according Det. Sgt. Randal Koubeck.
All three suspects have pleaded not guilty.
10) July 2: Marriage equality is the law of the land
Rainbow flags flew high across the entire nation June 26 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gender is no bar to marriage.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to withhold marriage equality rights from same-sex couples under the Fourteenth Amendment.
“From this day forward, it will simply be ‘marriage,”’ said lead plaintiff Jim Obergefell, an Ohio resident who filed a 2013 lawsuit after the state would not recognize his marriage to John Arthur. The couple had been legally wed in Maryland.
While made far from the borders of Wellington, it is the single largest civil rights ruling since the 1960s and affects millions of people.
Following the court’s decision, we reached out to 54 churches in our Amherst, Oberlin, and Wellington coverage areas to find which would and would not wed same-sex couples.
Seven said their pastors would officiate over gay weddings, 30 said they would not, and 15 declined to comment or did not return multiple calls seeking comment. Two churches did not have a clear answer.
In Wellington, 14 churches said they would not perform a same-sex wedding. Only one pastor, the Rev. Brian Burke of First Congregational United Church of Christ, said he would perform such a ceremony, though he was unsure whether it would be permissible inside a church building.
“I’m sure it goes against the majority in Wellington,” he said. “I just see God’s love as very expansive, broader than what we are willing to imagine.”
“The Supreme Court decision is really a civil rights decision and I’ve always felt that gay couples should have the same civil rights as married couples when they’re in committed relationships,” Burke said.
When we opened our newspapers’ Facebook pages to opinions on the court’s decision, the response leaned in favor of marriage equality but still showed a split.
“So happy! As the sister of a gay man, I can say without a doubt that all he and his partner ever wanted was equality! Love is love!” posted Kristin Murphy.
Shawn Lind had an opposing view: “I feel sorry! I wish I could encourage people to read the Bible, the manual to life. It’s so sad how easily others are distracts and corrupted by the ways of this world. This is not what God intended.”