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Energy issues, justice center, Drennen case among other big county stories in 2013

Jan 2, 2014 - Staff

Other news fell short of the year's top 10 list in Fremont County as reported Tuesday but received votes from Ranger news staff members in the annual year-end news poll of a dozen newspaper staff members.

Moneta Divide

Encana and Conoco Phillips this year made public plans to develop a 4,250-well gas field in Fremont and Natrona counties. In February, the Moneta Divide project began a three-year permitting process with the Bureau of Land Management.

At meetings, local residents were hopeful the development would bring jobs to the county.

Justice center

Fremont County Commissioners began the year vacillating on where to site a new Riverton justice center before landing on the Major property in March. Design work on the facility stalled in May after commissioners voted to stop it, and in June a state grant, which would have covered half of the $5 million project's price, fell through.

Architecture work relaunched in August after the county board approved moving forward. Concerns about funding the building halted progress at times during the fall, but commissioners are hoping a potential new state program could provide $2.5 million for the project this year.

Methamphetamine ring

The May arrests in Fremont County of Timothy Pitt on methamphetamine charges and six others authorities believed worked for the Hudson man set off months of legal maneuvers. Federal prosecutors took over Pitt's case and that of his supplier out of Sweetwater County in August.

Pitt pleaded guilty in December and is to face 15 years in prison, per a plea agreement, while the supplier faces up to 10 years. Five of Pitt's Fremont County accomplices accepted plea agreements and pleaded guilty in state courts, receiving lesser sentences than Pitt, but one man's case is still unresolved.

Fracking issues

Wyoming in June took over a study of groundwater near Pavillion from the Environmental Protection Agency in a move criticized by some residents but lauded by others. Encana Corp., which operates many wells in the Pavillion oil and gas field, gave $1.5 million to fund the state study.

Gov. Matt Mead long criticized the EPA study for being slow, but Wyoming's investigation by December had fallen behind schedule. Some results are expected this spring and others should be ready in 2015.

Drennen freed

In a sharp turn of fate, Gabriel Drennen walked out of prison a free man in December after serving three years of a life-in-prison term for first-degree murder. A jury in 2011 convicted Drennen of murder for shooting and killing Leroy Hoster in 2010.

On Drennen's third appeal, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled prosecutors misrepresented state law on self defense and ordered a new trial. Fremont County Attorney Michael Bennett in December first filed a lesser charge in the case, appearing to have reached a plea agreement with the defendant, before dropping all charges two days later, stating he believed Drennen acted in self defense.

School facilities

A state order requiring a student-to-teacher ratio of no more than 16:1 continued to pose challenges locally. Riverton's Rendezvous Elementary School underwent a second round of remodeling to enable the entire School District 25 third-grade population to squeeze into the big building.Rendezvous became the biggest elementary school in Wyoming in terms of enrollment. The old Lincoln Elementary, meanwhile, was ordered torn down even as some wondered why it couldn't be used to help alleviate the Rendezvous crowing temporarily.

District 25 tried and failed to buy the vacant High Plains Power Property near Tonkin Stadium, and a bid for state funding to build a high school auditorium was denied.

In near-desperate need of another elementary school, District 25 did win state approval for a land purchase in southwest Riverton as a school site. That transaction was nearing completion at year's end, with final funding and design awaiting budgeting authority from the Wyoming Legislature in 2014.

Wildfires

2013 had two wet-weather periods -- April and the early days of fall -- but in between it was hot and dry, with lots of grass and underbrush thanks to the spring moisture. Conditions were ripe for an active fire season, and two significant blazes made news.

The Fourth of July weekend and the days following saw Sinks Canyon State Park threatened by the Fairfield Fire. Quick response kept it from spreading to nearby homes and the park's most-visited areas. Memorable in the firefighting effort was the arrival of huge DC-10 supertanker. The jumbo jet roared at low altitude over the fire site on a slurry run that retarded the fire's growth.

High in the mountains due north of Dubois, the Burroughs Fire sparked later in the sumer whipping through dry forests impacted by beetle kill. The skies around Dubois and in much of the Riverton Valley filled with smoke for days, but the Burroughs Fire never grew to unmanageable proportions -- and the big snowstorm in late-September snuffed it.

1 percent tax money

Fremont County voters approved an optional 1 percent sales tax in the November 2012 election, and the money started to arrive for local-government use in 2013. In Riverton, a working group with citizen input decided to concentrate the first spending effort on pothole repair for city streets, and the work got under way during the summer.

Other communities had similarly uses in mind for the funding, which was approved specifically for basic infrastructure purposes.

The tax will be on the ballot again in 2016 and could be renewed or repealed by voters.

Cabinet officers visit

In a first-ever occasion for Fremont County, two U.S. cabinet officers visited on the same day.

In August, U.S. Secretary of Interior Sandy Jewell and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan arrived for events at Central Wyoming College and the Wind River Indian Reservation. Local educators, tribal officials and students participated in an hour-long forum at the Robert A. Peck Arts Center in Riverton with Duncan and Jewell. The two then visited St. Stephen's and Arapahoe schools.

Their discussions focused on quality education for reservation students, the affects of the sequestration on educational funding, evident poverty, and the management and collaboration with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and schools.

Council vacancies

The final two city Riverton City Council meetings in 2013 came with surprising news as the city learned that two council seats would be empty at the beginning of the new year.

Representing Ward 1, Eric Heiser announced he would be leaving his city council position and the city of Riverton to accept a position as associate dean at the School of Applied Technology at Salt Lake Community College in Utah. He was appointed to the council in 2005 and had one year left in his current term.

Resignation was the only option for Lars Baker after he announced his retirement from the Fremont County Weed and Pest Control District after 38 years of service. In order to retire, Baker would have to leave all positions covered under the Wyoming State Retirement system. Baker said he intends to re-apply to represent Ward 3 and timed the announcement to work with a required 30-day separation to continue serving the city and still qualify for state retirement benefits.

City staff will officially announce the vacancies and application process in January.

Superintendent turnover

Several superintendents departed from school districts on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 2013 but were just as quickly filled before the year's end.

The first was from Jonathan Braack at Fremont County School District 38 in Arapahoe, who submitted his resignation in February but not effective until June after his one-year contract was up. Braack had only been at Arapahoe School for a year until he announced he and his family felt the need to move on. Braack was the fourth superintendent to leave that position in that district since 2007.

Also in February, Wyoming Indian School superintendent Michelle Hoffman announced she was retiring from district 14 after being there for 27 years.

After five years at school district 38, Arapaho Charter High School principal Melvin Miller also resigned in February.

And School District 21 in Fort Washakie received a resignation notice from Richard McClements in March after serving as superintendent for two years.

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