LAFAYETTE, La. (The Advertiser)- After the political firestorm that was 2016, many of us were hoping for calm and civility in 2017. It was not to be, however.
Globally, tensions were high. North Korea escalated its nuclear armament. There were at least eight terrorist attacks that killed more than 100 people. There were more than 300 mass shootings in the United states, including an Oct. shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people and injured more than 500.
In Lafayette Parish, more than 20 people were killed in violent incidents in 2017, mostly the result of shootings. The Oct. 1 death of Lafayette Police Cpl. Michael Middlebrook in the line of duty shook the community to its core.
That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots in 2017, however.
Our children performed well in the classroom and on the playing field. Our community showed its resilience in light of a lingering economic slump. And for a couple weeks in the middle of summer, Garth Brooks brought us together and put on a show that drowned out all the noise.
Here are some of our top stories of the year, as selected by The Daily Advertiser:
Garth Brooks serenades Lafayette…five times
The interest in seeing Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood in concert Lafayette was so great that he added shows before tickets even went on sale. Together they performed five shows over two weekends in the Cajundome in June.
They not only performed classic chart-toppers like “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” “Friends in Low Places” and “How Do I Live,” but also accepted an invitation to a couple’s wedding, gave an 89-year-old woman Brooks’ guitar and recorded at least one song for a live album.
Bizarre kidnapping plot
Former Lafayette businessman Lawrence Michael Handley was arrested after allegedly masterminding the kidnapping of his estranged wife, Schanda Handley, from their home.
The plot went awry when the two alleged kidnappers, Sylvester Bracey and Arsenio Haynes, drowned near Baton Rouge while trying to escape police. Schanda Handley was discovered alive in the back of their van.
A grand jury has indicated Lawrence Handley on multiple charges, including conspiracy to commit kidnapping and murder. Authorities have said he rented the van used in the kidnapping and sent threatening text messages in the weeks before the incident. The case is pending in district court.
Taxes on the ballot
In April, Lafayette Parish voters rejected a proposal for a new sales tax that would have funded construction and expansion at a dozen schools. In light of the failure, officials in December dipped into their savings fund and made other financial changes to pay for about $49 million worth of projects. Also in April, voters turned down tax renewals that fund the upkeep of the parish jail and courthouse.
In November, officials put the renewals back on the ballot, where they passed, ensuring the government will still have money for those facilities. Also in November, voters agreed to rededicate a portion of a health tax to fund drainage improvements as well as a new initiative, CREATE, to focus on local culture and economic development.
New school bus routes
Frustration brewed among hundreds of parents just days before the new school year. The district cut nearly two dozen bus routes, mostly for Schools of Choice academies.
At the same time, they implemented a new software program to give parents bus and route information. But technical glitches meant many parents didn’t know their child’s bus or route even as classes were beginning.
The problems were eventually ironed out, and officials insisted the majority of the routes ran smoothly.
Ragin’ Cajuns coaching shakeups
When the University of Louisiana at Lafayette hired a new athletic director in February, it was assumed that there would be changes. But Ragin’ Cajuns fans could not predict the shakeup that was to come in the last few months of 2017.
On Nov. 1, softball coach Michael Lotief was fired, citing university policy violations that included vulgar language and verbal and physical assault. Longtime SEC assistant coach Gerry Glasco was hired Nov. 19 to replace Lotief.
On Dec. 3, the university fired head football Mark Hudspeth after seven seasons, citing inconsistent performance, dwindling attendance and declining financial support of the program. On Dec. 15, the university announced Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier had been hired to replace Hudspeth.
New St. Pius church
In 2008, a capital campaign was launched to replace the old St. Pius church, which no longer met the needs of the growing parish. Altogether, parishioners raised more than $6 million toward the $21 million project.
The new church was built by JB Mouton, a construction firm that has been around for more than 100 years and that also built Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church some 58 years ago, along with the Stinson family.
When the new church opened in the fall, it became the first new church in the parish in 22 years. The capacity of the church was expanded from 500 to nearly 1,000.
How to pay for Festival International
More than 300,000 annually attend Lafayette’s biggest free party, Festival International de Louisiane. But less than 600 provide financial support.
After announcing cutbacks, festival officials welcomed new corporate sponsors. But financial challenges remain for a world-renowned event that the public has enjoyed for three decades without an admission charge.
Cpl. Michael Middlebrook slain
The Oct. 1 shooting death of Cpl. Michael Middlebrook shook the Lafayette Police Department and the entire city.
The shooting at the Big Boy Discount Zone convenience store on Moss Street was the first time a city police officer was killed in the line of duty since the 1960s.
Middlebrook, a 9-year veteran of the LPD, left behind a wife daughter and two step-daughters. He was known to text Bible verses to co-workers and deliver food to the homeless.
When given the opportunity to transfer out of the high-crime neighborhood he patrolled, Middlebrook declined.
His death brought to light a city policy where medical insurance premiums of surviving family members increase a week after employment with the city is terminated. The administration and City-Parish Council recently revised the policy so surviving dependents can continue paying the same premium they were paying before their loved one was killed on the job.
Police arrested Ian Howard, 28, of Lafayette, in connection to the shooting. He who was indicted by a grand jury on one count of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder.
SMILE Community Action Agency
Illegal telephone votes, illegal meetings, attempts to remove board members and lawsuits marred 2017 for the St. Martin Iberia Lafayette Community Action Agency.
The chaos culminated in July when the federal department that administers the Head Start early childhood education program abruptly canceled its contract with SMILE, pulled more than $14 million in funding and appointed another agency to run SMILE’s Head Start and Early Head Start program.
During a federal court hearing in August on SMILE’s appeal, a Head Start regional program manager from Texas said her office was notified by concerned citizens about alleged physical abuses by SMILE Head Start teachers that weren’t properly reported to local, state and federal agencies.
SMILE did little to correct the problems and a follow-up visit revealed additional issues, she said.
Continued news coverage, she said, showed the inability of the SMILE board members to cooperate and continued arguing at meetings did not instill confidence that the situation would improve.
Drainage, flooding issues continue
Many residents whose homes flooded in the August 2016 deluge finished repairs and moved back home in 2017. But each rainfall brought anxiety and stress.
The threat of hurricanes and tropical storms and a few heavy rainfalls, especially in May and November, were especially stressful as some homes flooded again.
Residents who organized and pressured Lafayette Consolidated Government to make improvements to coulees and drainage channels were met with the reply that the parish is slowly working on it but doesn’t have enough money to do it all.
In July, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux pitched the idea to use a $9 million surplus in the public health fund for drainage and re-dedicate 1.1 mills of a public health property tax for drainage to generate another $2.5 million a year on top of an existing drainage tax.
Voters approved the measure in November and the transfer is expected to take place in January.