Seacoast Online | 2011 Year in Review: Stories 2 to 10
2. Mother murders son
The tragic story of a mystery boy who authorities later discovered was murdered by his Texas mother haunted the Seacoast this year.
Linda Gove of South Berwick, Maine, discovered the body of 6-year-old Camden Pierce Hughes covered by a blanket at the foot of a tree near her home May 14. The discovery prompted a massive police investigation into the boy’s identity. The boy went unidentified for days, but the community accepted him as one of its own and breathed relief after authorities captured his mother, Julianne McCrery, at a Massachusetts rest stop May 18.
McCrery admitted to driving to Hampton to fulfill a plot to kill her son and herself by ingesting poisonous castor beans. She smothered him to death in a Hampton motel room before taking the beans, which did not have the desired effect. McCrery pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Nov. 4 and is scheduled for sentencing Jan. 13.
3. Dead seals
Dead harbor seals began to wash up along the New Hampshire coast began in early September when surfers in Rye reported seeing dozens of dead seals on the shore and in the water.
A story by the Portsmouth Herald prompted an immediate investigation by the New England Aquarium and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It found at least 162 dead seals had washed ashore from southern Maine to northern Massachusetts. Results of necropsies on five seal carcasses found in New Hampshire came in this month and revealed the seals died of a new strain of influenza, never before seen in marine mammals. Scientists continue to investigate whether the new flu strain is what killed all of the seals, and if it is a threat to humans.
4. Maine Turnpike Authority
Maine Turnpike Authority operations came under a microscope earlier this year, after then state Rep. Dawn Hill of York, now a state senator, questioned why the quasi municipal agency was no longer giving the state its surplus funds from toll collections.
An independent Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability report released in January, and a forensic audit later in the year, revealed questionable expenditures by then MTA Executive Director Paul Violette. The audit showed Violette used nearly $500,000 in turnpike funds on gift cards, credit card charges and vacation and sick leave pay to which he wasn’t entitled, according to the MTA. Violette resigned in March, and by mid-December, the MTA agreed to accept $430,000 in reimbursement from Violette and its two bonding companies. The state Attorney General’s office continues to investigate potential criminal charges against Violette.
The settlement was a win for toll payers, who saw their money go back into turnpike operations. It also boosted the cause of those who view building a new toll plaza in York as a waste of at least $35 million and an environmental and neighborhood hazard.
Violette’s seeming inflexibility over a plan to build a new, open road plaza like the one in Hampton, N.H., pitted residents and town officials against the MTA. The Think Again group, York Board of Selectmen and others favor waiting until all electronic tolling becomes the highway standard. New MTA Executive Director Peter Mills is making no promises, but met with Think Again and selectmen and is studying the issue in a way residents say Violette never did.
5. Sewer disks wash ashore
Close to 4 million plastic disks landed on area beaches in March after their accidental release from the Hooksett wastewater treatment plant, necessitating a massive cleanup. The disks were used to treat bacteria in the sewage treatment process and were discharged in a water overflow as a result of heavy rains and melting snow, according to Hooksett officials.
The disks, slightly larger than a half-dollar, were carried down the Merrimack River, into the ocean and onto beaches north and south raising concerns about contamination. Warnings were issued for beachgoers to avoid touching the disks unless gloves were worn.
6. Battle over environment
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued draft nitrogen discharge permits to Exeter and Newmarket, requesting their wastewater treatment plants cut nitrogen discharges to 3 milligrams per liter.
Exeter was the first to receive the permit and because 3 milligrams is considered the limit of technology, and the most expensive, it raised concerns in the community. Exeter and Newmarket would need to build new, multi-million dollar treatment plants to comply with new standards.
The Great Bay Coalition of Exeter, Portsmouth, Newmarket, Dover and Rochester questioned the EPA’s science in studying the health of the Great Bay estuary. Increased levels of nitrogen have been blamed for significant declines in the eelgrass and oyster populations.
The city of Portsmouth this month called on the EPA and state Department of Environmental Resources to follow state law requiring a public and transparent process in setting the nitrogen limit, and said it would proceed with designing a plant upgrade to treat at an 8 milligram standard.
The coalition also argues only about 30 percent of the nitrogen that impacts the estuary comes from the treatment plants and the rest comes from non-point sources like stormwater runoff, farms, septic systems, lawns and impervious surfaces.
Exeter is expected to receive its final permit in early 2012.
7. School choice
An exodus of students from Dondero to Little Harbour School in Portsmouth over the summer divided the community and raised questions about deficiencies in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Thirty-five students transferred to Little Harbour under a provision of the law that provides school choice to children at a Title 1 school designated as in need of improvement. Dondero is a Title 1 school while Little Harbour is not, although both are designated in need of improvement based on standardized test scores.
The transfers created some animosity between parents and neighbors, though the conflict largely died down as the school year opened. The long-term ramifications are overcrowding at Little Harbour and talks at the state level of changing the guidelines for school choice.
The City Council recently approved spending $600,000 to move central school offices to City Hall to increase classroom space at Little Harbour. State Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry expressed confidence the school choice law will be modified, though no official decision has been announced.
8. Health care fight
Exeter Hospital’s year started with a resolution to a nearly eight-month negotiation process between it and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield on a new three-year-provider contract. Trouble struck again later as the state Legislature cut Medicaid reimbursements to the state’s largest hospitals and eliminated the Disproportionate Share program. Hospital officials say the $10 million hit from the state and $10 million in concessions it made to Anthem were too much to overcome and in September they announced the reduction of 110 full-time equivalent positions spread throughout Exeter Hospital, Core Physicians, Exeter Healthcare and Synergy Health & Fitness.
Of the eliminated positions, officials say 25 were currently filled. About 40 employees received a reduction in hours, while other cuts were made through attrition and voluntary resignations or “buy outs” offered to employees nearing their retirements.
It was also announced that Exeter Healthcare would close. Located on the hospital’s campus, the skilled nursing facility is one of the few that accepts patients who need long-term access to ventilators. Eight patients who require specialized, long-term care currently use that facility.
9. Signgate in the city
Controversy sparked this fall during City Council election when the Association of Portsmouth Taxpayers made its endorsements, but at the last minute decided rescinded support for incumbent Nancy Novelline Clayburgh.
The APT had already made its signs and instead of buying new ones, someone cut Clayburgh’s name from the bottom of the signs along with School Board candidate Mary Olea. That decision led some to believe incumbents Eric Spear and Tony Coviello had something to do with the APT decision not to endorse Clayburgh.
Both admitted to sharing their opinions with the APT and each apologized to Clayburgh. The City Council issued a joint statement denouncing the campaign behavior and insisted it would consider implementing a voluntary code of conduct for future council campaigns.
10. Local Government Center
In August, the state Bureau of Securities Regulation announced the LGC is “improperly constituted,” should return to nonprofit status and reimburse $100 million it collected from communities, public employees and retirees across the state.
BSR attorney Earle Wingate III announced the LGC formed “shell companies” in Delaware, creating “illegal” nonprofit LLCs with no ability to do business in New Hampshire. Portsmouth City Manager John Bohenko was originally named as a responsible party in a 4-count, $100 million complaint against the LGC. He was released from liability in October as he was found to have voted against the LGC’s corporate restructuring and agreed to assist the BSR with its ongoing investigation.