Top 10 Stories of 2011
PROVIDENCE, RI – It's been a busy 2011 in Rhode Island, and Rhode Island Public Radio's counting down the top ten news stories of the year.
Number 10: Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman Steps Down
Dean Esserman arrived in Providence in 2003 and during his tenure became a polarizing figure. Supporters applauded his reforms at the scandal-plagued Providence Police Department, while his temper created a rocky relationship with rank and file officers.
He was suspended for a day after he threatened to throw a cup of hot coffee on an officer earlier this year.
He left the Providence Police department back in June following a party at his house where there was underage drinking.
Esserman is now the police chief in New Haven Connecticut.
Number 9: State Reps Gone Bad
The legislators' troubles began in April when House Minority Leader Robert Watson was arrested in Connecticut and accused of driving under the influence.
Next up was Republican Representative Dan Gordon, who was arrested on outstanding charges from a 2008 traffic stop. It turned out Gordon had a previous criminal history in Massachusetts, and though he claims his problems stemmed from military service in the Middle East, it was revealed that he never served there.
Democratic Representative Leo Medina was later arrested and accused of embezzling money from a friend's life insurance policy.
Democratic Representative John Carnevale was indicted on sexual assault charges. And in November, the FBI raided the insurance office of Democratic Rep John McCauley.
Number 8: Tropical Storm Irene
It was supposed to be a hurricane, but by the time it hit Block Island meteorologists downgraded Irene to a tropical storm.
Even with the degradation, Irene shot wind gusts up to 71 miles per hour across the state. More than 400 downed trees, power lines and tree limbs scattered in the streets. Nearly 331,000 residents lost power during the height of the storm.
National Grid struggled to restore power. For many, the outages last for almost a week. As a result many Rhode Islanders recall the great storm of 2011 as time spent in the dark.
Number 7: No Early Release for Woodmansee
When news broke in March that convicted child killer Michael Woodmansee would be released in August, Rhode Islanders cried foul. How could a man who killed a five-year-old boy be released after serving 28 years of a 40-year sentence?
The answer: the state's good time law, which shaves off time for good behavior and holding a job in prison.
Citizens held large rallies demanding the law be changed. Legislation to amend the good time law failed in the General Assembly but a committee was empanelled to study the current system.
Woodmansee agreed to voluntary commitment at the state mental hospital after two psychiatrists determined he would be a threat to society. His hospital confinement will be reviewed by a judge every six months.
Number 6: Corruption in North Providence
Three North Providence town councilors and the town solicitor were jailed in 2011 for corruption. They were caught taking bribes from people seeking zoning and license changes.
Serving five to six year sentences are town solicitor Robert Ciresi and councilors John Zambarano, Joseph Burchfield and Raymond Douglas.
The North Providence town council ended the year by passing an ordinance requiring the public to take an oath swearing to tell the truth before addressing them. The American Civil Liberties Union blasted the policy, saying it will intimidate people and chill speech.
Number 5: Civil Unions Signed into Law
Same-sex marriage was once again a heated issue at the Statehouse. This time, the General Assembly approved civil unions for same-sex partners, a compromise that made activists on both sides unhappy.
Opponents of same-sex unions, led by Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, argued that marriage should be restricted to heterosexuals that produce trandtional families. Marriage Equality Rhode Island, the lobbying group for same-sex couples, asserted that gay Rhode Islanders should have the same right to marriage as straight citizens.
Despite support from Governor Lincoln Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox, same-sex marriage advocates couldn't muster the votes to win and had to settle for the civil union measure.
Number 4: Medical Marijuana Put on Hold
It seemed like the year for medical marijuana stores in Rhode Island. In March, the Department of Health finally selected three groups to run the state's first so-called compassion centers.
But dispensary owners had barely reviewed their business plans when Governor Lincoln Chafee received a threatening letter from U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha. The message said compassion centers violated federal law and could be raided or prosecuted if they opened.
Chafee responded by halting the program temporarily and then indefinitely.
The governor's calls to reclassify marijuana as a medically beneficial drug haven't satisfied dispensary owners and medical marijuana patients who say they're still waiting for a safe place to buy their medicine.
Number 3: "Category Five" Budget Woes for Providence
Providence made national headlines this year when it terminated every public school teacher in the city. Mayor angel Taveras blamed the firings on an unprecedented financial crisis, say the problem was far worse than anyone had expected.
In all, the city faced a $110 million deficit. To close the gap, Taveras extracted millions of dollars in give backs from police, fire and teacher union workers. Police officers will go six years with no raises and firefighters lost a week of paid vacation. Teachers agreed to add 15 minutes to the school day and pay more for health insurance.
All of the teachers got their jobs back, with the exception of some teachers who took an early retirement incentive.
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