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Regional news roundup

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Leopold is convicted, serves time for misconduct

Dogged for years by allegations he ordered police officers and government employees to carry out personal and political errands — including arranging trysts with a girlfriend — John R. Leopold finally had his day in court, and lost. Leopold was convicted of two counts of misconduct in office and resigned as Anne Arundel’s county executive Feb. 1. After serving a month in jail and performing community service at a food bank, Leopold is appealing his conviction and expects a hearing in early 2014. Meanwhile, two lawsuits against the county that stem from Leopold’s actions remain active. Laura Neuman, who was chosen by the County Council to replace Leopold, is campaigning to win the job on her own in 2014.

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Naval Academy assault allegations fuel debate on military justice

For more than a week over the summer, testimony about heavy drinking and sexual activity among midshipmen drew national attention to the Naval Academy. Three former football players were investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting a classmate while she was incapacitated at an off-campus party. Following an eight-day hearing in Washington, two of the men were referred to a court-martial, and will stand trial in 2014. The third was not, and has been commissioned an officer in the Navy. Critics of the military justice system focused on the treatment of the alleged victim, who was kept on the stand for more than 20 hours over several days. The case also brought to light the issue of off-campus party houses rented by midshipmen in violation of academy rules.

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Maxwell’s departure leave school system scrambling for replacement

Anne Arundel County Superintendent Kevin Maxwell surprised school officials and parents when he stepped down in June to assume a similar post in Prince George’s County. Named Educator of the Year for 2007 by the Maryland Parent Teacher Association, Maxwell was credited with launching the county’s magnet programs as part of initiatives to offer more choices for students. His seven-year tenure in Annapolis exceeded the national average, but school officials expressed disappointment at his sudden resignation. He received a $90,060 payout for unused leave but was penalized $20,000 for resigning within a three-month window requirement stipulated in his contract. Prince George’s picked up all but $5,000 of the penalty, and Anne Arundel officials hired former Howard County school official Mamie J. Perkins as interim superintendent.

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Suspension of ‘pastry kid’ focuses attention on school discipline

What began with a two-day suspension in March of a Park Elementary School second-grader turned into a local and national debate when Joshua Welch was accused of biting a pastry into the shape of a gun and waving it around. The “pastry kid” attracted national attention while feeding debates on gun control, school discipline and zero tolerance policies. Even the National Rifle Association chimed in, extending a lifetime membership to the boy. Still, the Anne Arundel school system was steadfast in upholding the suspension, and turned down requests from the boy’s parents to have the matter cleared from his record. Welch’s parents have since moved him to another school.

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CSX train derailment, explosion rocks Rosedale

A CSX train with two locomotives and 45 cars derailed in Rosedale on May 28, resulting in a massive chemical explosion five minutes later that was felt throughout the region and caused damage as far as a quarter-mile away. The blast blew out windows, cracked the foundations of nearby homes and businesses and triggered weeks of cleanup and investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Fifteen rail cars derailed, including three carrying hazardous materials. No one was killed, but John Alban Jr., driver of a trash truck that was struck by the train at an unprotected crossing near an industrial park, was seriously injured. He was later charged with multiple traffic violations related to the crash. NTSB has not yet released its final report.

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Towson sees start of transformation into ‘urban centerpiece’

Stating a goal to make the Towson an “urban centerpiece” as vibrant as Bethesda or Harbor East, developers and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in June announced the $300 million Towson Row project off York Road, a million-square-foot mix of retail, office, hotel and residential space. Kamenetz called it “transformational”— the overall space will rival Towson Town Center mall — but the Caves Valley Partners project represents only about half the change targeted for the county seat. Some $600 million is being invested in Towson’s redevelopment, including the $85 million Towson Square complex with a 16-screen theater, the $60 million 101 YORK student housing and retail complex, the $27 million public-private Towson City Center and the addition of some 1,500 new apartments over the past four years. But transformation has come some growing pains — Towson saw an uptick of robberies and street crimes, and the county’s sale of the Towson fire station property for development caused protest by residents who wanted something other than the Royal Farms that ultimately won the bid.

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Schneider is first county police officer shooting fatality since 2000

Officer Jason Schneider, a 13-year veteran with Baltimore County police, was killed in August when he and 25-year-old Tevon Smith exchanged gunfire after tactical unit officers entered a Catonsville home on Roberts Avenue. The officers were looking for 17-year-old Rasheed Stanford regarding a non-fatal shooting a week earlier in the neighborhood. Stanford later turned himself into police and faces trial in February. Schneider, a married father of two, was known by colleagues for his experience and leadership. He was the first Baltimore County officer killed by gunfire in 13 years, after Sgt. Bruce Allen Prothero in 2000. More than 1,200 people attended Schneider’s funeral in Manchester.

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Three die in Aberdeen Proving Ground ‘Super Pond’

It was a deadly year for the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground “Super Pond,” a 150-foot deep pool where the military tests missiles, torpedoes, sonar and the effects of explosions on submarines and boats. The pond had never had a fatality since opening in 1995, but in 2013 saw three in less than a month. George H. Lazzaro Jr., a 41-year-old former Marine working as a civilian engineering technician, died Jan. 30 while performing maintenance. Then on Feb. 26, Navy divers 1st Class James Reyher and 2nd Class Ryan Harris died during a training exercise, of which a supervisor later said, “Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong for us.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration later alleged violations, including failure to have a standby diver on hand, occurred during Lazzaro’s dive. And in October, the Navy announced four sailors will be court-martialed on charges in connection to the deaths of Reyher and Harris. Another faced administrative action.

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Murder of popular blogger Dennis Lane shocks community

He was a businessman, writer, civic activist and Howard County City blogger, but Dennis Lane was sometimes more recognized as the man in the red scarf. His brutal murder in May left friends and the community reeling, in part for the circumstances: Lane, 58, was stabbed to death in his home, and his 14-year-old daughter, Morgan Lane Arnold, and her 19-year-old boyfriend, Jason Anthony Bulmer, were charged as adults with first-degree murder and two counts of conspiracy to commit murder. Charging documents say Bulmer, now 20, told police he killed Lane and that Arnold, described by some as shy and troubled, had urged him to do it. Trials for both are scheduled in 2014. In June, more than 200 people attended a memorial event at Merriweather Post Pavilion for Lane, who was described by his fiancee, Denise Geiger, as an “absolutely, unbelievably charming man.”

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Ellicott City father becomes face of Common Core opposition

An Ellicott City father became a YouTube sensation in September after he challenged state education officials and interrupted a meeting on controversial new education standards known as Common Core. At a forum in Towson, Robert Small, 46, expressed his view that the new Common Core standards are designed to send children to community colleges rather than four-year universities. When he refused to yield the floor, he was removed by an off-duty police officer and called to others in the audience, “Don’t sit there like cattle. … Is this America?” He was handcuffed and arrested, though charges were later dropped. Video of the incident spread like fire across social media, and it was embraced by conservative media outlets as an example of First Amendment threats and the overreach of government. Less reported was the fact that Small’s wife is head of an education organization in Howard that has yet to take an official stance on Common Core — Christina Delmont-Small is president of the PTA Council of Howard County.

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AccuPay scandal triggers state review of payroll service industry

Payroll services firm AccuPay was the subject of client lawsuits and investigations by police and the Internal Revenue Service this year for allegedly pocketing years of clients’ tax payments rather than sending them to state and federal tax authorities. The allegations involved as many as 600 clients. The scandal resulted in General Assembly action creating a commission to study if Maryland should more closely regulate the private payroll service industry. AccuPay’s clients have reportedly worked out deals to avoid delinquent fees or fines but still must pay back taxes. AccuPay, which shut down abruptly in February, filed for Chapter 7 federal bankruptcy protection in March. The federal investigation is ongoing.

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Pay-for-play and bus cutbacks raise controversy for Harford schools

Controversial moves by Harford County Public Schools to save money by cutting back school bus service and charging fees for students participating in sports, clubs and extracurricular activities drew heated opposition. Parents and students blasted the $50 pay-for-play plan for sports and a $25 fee for extracurricular activities, as well as bus scheduling changes and creation of “bus depot” stops for magnet program students to facilitate fewer buses. The board’s $424.7 million budget also cut 115 teaching and other staff positions and $7.7 million in salary increases, and escalated a rift between the school board and County Executive David Craig, who claimed the board could make reductions elsewhere or tap surplus funds, which school officials denied. In the end, about 3.1 percent fewer students signed up for fall athletics, though overall school enrollments were also slightly down, officials said.

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‘Columbia’s Central Park’ takes shape with Inner Arbor

In 1963, Jim Rouse unveiled a proposal for a “real city” in Howard County that came to be known as Columbia. Fifty years later, a proposal to turn 34 acres within Columbia into a cultural arts park took shape in 2013. The Inner Arbor Trust’s concept for Symphony Woods Park near Merriweather Post Pavilion was given a green light in February by the Columbia Association, and in December an international team of architects and designers unveiled a site plan that includes a multi-purpose building called the Butterfly, an outdoor amphitheater called the Chrysalis and an 800-foot long tube between the concert venue and the park called the Caterpillar. Other phases envision theaters, a restaurant, an art gallery and other amenities. Michael McCall, president of the Inner Arbor group, is guiding the plan for what some call “Columbia’s Central Park,” but a question for 2014 will be how to pay for it. The estimated price tag is $30 million.

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$50 million redevelopment seen as fresh start for Eldersburg center

Nine years after purchasing the beleaguered Carrolltown Center in Eldersburg and subsequently closing off its interior mall, the Owings Mills-based Black Oak Associates in April unveiled its proposal for a $50 million redevelopment of South Carroll’s key retail property along Liberty Road. The plan was greeted enthusiastically by many residents — some of which had actively rooted for closure of a Kmart at the center that was seen as an obstacle to redevelopment. In October, county planners gave their blessing to the new plaza concept, to be called Eldersburg Commons, and demolition of segments of the 35-year-old former mall began. The 290,000 center is slated to open next fall with a Walmart Supercenter and apparel and home furnishing stores and restaurants. The project is expected to create some 630 jobs and generate about $540,000 in annual tax revenue for the county.

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Fire destroys building, but not faith, for 160-year-old Lineboro church

Lazarus Church in the northern community of Lineboro marked its 160th year in 2013, and ended it in difficult fashion. The morning of Dec. 3, a fire of unknown origin started in the sanctuary, and two hours later the historic structure was gutted. The “union” church building — shared by the Lazarus United Church of Christ and Lazarus Lutheran Church — was destroyed, but members kept the faith, gathering throughout the day and into the night at Lineboro fire hall to support one another, share memories and pray. Pastor Sam Chamelin was emphatic that Lazarus would rise again, saying, “We’ll rebuild.” That task will be a challenge for the new year — when the current building was completed in 1908, it had cost $15,159.78. On Dec. 4, fire officials estimated damages at $4 million.

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Carroll commissioners defiant in stance against ‘rain tax’

Some jurisdictions tried to minimize a controversial new state-mandated stormwater management fee — derided by some as a “rain tax” — but Carroll’s Board of County Commissioners simply refused to impose it, with one commissioner calling it “stupid, silly, idiotic.” Legislation from the General Assembly mandated the largest 10 jurisdictions in the state impose a fee on property owners to help pay for stormwater projects, but Carroll officials said they have $20 million in stormwater projects already in the county budget, and issued a press release declaring, ”Rain Remains ‘Free’ in Carroll County.” State officials countered in November, threatening to impose fines of up to $10,000 a day if the county doesn’t comply. Carroll officials say they’ll talk with state agencies, but feel backlash from the controversial fee might prompt another look in the 2014 assembly session anyway.

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