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GM, YMCA among Gazette's top stories in 2019

JANESVILLE

By the time 2019 rolled around, the demolition of Janesville’s once-great General Motors assembly plant had been underway for nine months.

But it was in 2019—100 years after the plant opened—that the site’s owner reduced the nearly 5 million-square-foot structure to a few scrap piles and acres of concrete foundations.

GM’s continued demolition and efforts to preserve the plant’s legacy was The Gazette’s top story of 2019.

In April and May came the toppling of two landmarks: the plant’s brick façade along Jackson Street and the 200-foot-tall smokestack that once bore the GM emblem and, originally, the Samson tractor insignia.

As Commercial Development Company cleared the property for redevelopment, former UAW workers and volunteers from Blackhawk Community Credit Union amassed a pile of history for the taking.

In May, the credit union organized the first of two giveaways of bricks from the plant.

In December, the plan commission approved Commercial Development’s preliminary development plan that shows how the site could be redeveloped as a rail-served light industrial and commercial park.

At that first brick giveaway, Dale Bernstein, former UAW president and a 35-year GM worker, praised the city’s efforts to redefine itself after GM. Still, he said, people should remember how much the plant meant to thousands of people.

Here’s a look at the other top stories as voted on by Gazette staff:

2. YMCA CEO Tom Den Boer departs under pressure

Angela Major 

The YMCA of Northern Rock County in downtown Janesville.

In early 2019, news surfaced that YMCA of Northern Rock County CEO Tom Den Boer had been unilaterally terminating key board members at the Y and kicking out members who sought more transparency.

The members wanted clarity on why leadership had become increasingly opaque under Den Boer, a nonprofit CEO who was being paid $317,000 a year, according to tax forms.

Some members went public, threatening to sue to get documents they had been denied.

In the meantime, the local United Way cut off the Y’s access to grants over documents that appeared to have been falsified. The national YMCA intervened, and the board launched an internal review of the leaders’ conduct.

In late January, Den Boer was placed on administrative leave. Less than a month later, he and the Y parted ways. The Y gave no explanation for his departure, but before he left, it reinstated three board members who had been improperly terminated.

New leadership, including a new CEO, has come aboard, and the Y is working to mend fences in the community.

3. Top Milton School District administrators resign

Angela Major 

Milton Superintendent Tim Schigur, left, and Director of Administrative Operations Jerry Schuetz, right, stand at the front of a meeting where their voluntary resignations were announced.

After months of back-and-forth bickering over stipends to administrative staff, two top Milton School District administrators resigned in June.

Superintendent Tim Schigur and Director of Administrative Operations Jerry Schuetz received $447,000 in severance pay and compensatory damages under an agreement with the district.

The two men became targets in a conflict that started after money designated for an unfilled communications coordinator position was reallocated to give $10,500 to Schigur, $10,000 to Schuetz and $10,000 to IT employee Michael Gouvion.

The stipends were paid against the advice of the school district’s director of business services, Mary Ellen Van Valin, who refused to sign the paperwork and recommended the stipends be considered by the school board. She later acted as a whistleblower by sharing her concerns with a school board member, according to an investigative report.

Van Valin told an investigator Schuetz told her he didn’t want the stipends to attract attention, but Schuetz denied saying that.

Madison attorney Lori Lubinksy was hired to investigate whether the stipend approval process violated state law or board policy.

In August, a Baker Tilly audit recommended by Lubinsky found that the use of stipends was not a violation but that the district should be more clear in its use of the word.

4. Janesville addresses homelessness

Angela Major 

Mary sits in her van overnight Aug. 3 at Traxler Park’s north boat launch parking lot in Janesville. The city began allowing homeless people to sleep in their cars at the lot and later moved them to the lot at 105 N. Jackson St.

Despite efforts to help the homeless over the years, homelessness continued to pose problems for Janesville and the region in 2019.

The Gazette reported in April that numbers of homeless students in Rock and Walworth county school districts were rising. Part of the problem is a national one: a lack of affordable housing.

On Oct. 13, The Gazette told the story of a man who worked two part-time jobs but still couldn’t afford rent. He was living in a tent in a friend’s yard. The story quoted statistics saying Janesville needed at least 500 more rental units.

A coalition of local agencies and city officials—Finding Opportunities and Collaborating to Unite Services, or FOCUS—led to a new outreach effort by police. In April, the city transferred a tax-foreclosed home to ECHO to serve as a transitional living facility.

FOCUS proposed in May that the city allow the homeless to park overnight in a public park, which previously had been banned.

After much debate, the city piloted the homeless-parking project in August in a lot north of the Traxler Park boat launch. Before winter started, the site was moved to 105 N. Jackson St., across the street from the Janesville Police Department.

Also in August, the House of Mercy increased the length of shelter stays from 30 to 60 days, citing residents’ difficulty in finding places to rent.

The city approved construction of several new apartment buildings this year, which officials said could help ease the housing shortage.

Richard Snyder, a local stained-glass artist, continued to push his idea to build “tiny homes” for the homeless. After his plans met neighborhood resistance, he relented and donated money he had raised to homeless and veterans causes.

A Community Action plan to build small homes in River Valley Park on the south side is pending.

5. Milton School District under investigation

An investigation into Milton School District stipends and the release of documents resulted in no punitive action, but it was a challenge for the district in 2019.

In February, school board member Brian Kvapil called for an emergency board meeting to discuss documents he received from Mary Ellen Van Valin, the director of business services, showing $35,000 in stipends had been given to Superintendent Tim Schigur, Director of Administrative Operations Jerry Schuetz and Michael Gouvion, an IT employee.

Kvapil believed the stipends were given without proper approval. When the board didn’t meet immediately to talk about them, he released the documents to the media.

A week later, the school board hired Lori Lubinsky to investigate whether the stipends violated board policy or state law and whether Kvapil had illegally released documents.

Former board President Tom Westrick admitted that he signed off on Schigur’s $10,500 stipend without board approval. He acknowledged it was against board policy but said he did not know that at the time.

Lubinsky found no other wrongdoing during her investigation, but she recommended policy and procedural changes.

The investigation riled some residents, who voiced their frustration at board meetings and online.

Schigur and Schuetz eventually resigned.

6. Milton School District voters OK facilities referendum

Anthony Wahl 

Harmony and Consolidated elementary schools Principal Sarah Stuckey and school board member Joe Martin hug after the Milton School District referendum passed in April.

After two failed attempts by the Milton School District to pass a facilities referendum, voters finally passed the latest proposal in April.

Garnering 53% of the vote, the referendum allows the district to make $59.9 million in upgrades and additions to every school except one.

Milton High School is set to receive upgrades in technical education, STEM classrooms, a gymnasium and a new pool. The money also is paying for general maintenance.

When the referendum passed, the district said it would cost taxpayers $164 more in school taxes per year—$13.67 per month—per $100,000 of property value.

Budget numbers for 2019-20 now show a school tax rate increase of $1.34 per $100,000 of equalized value.

Construction on the referendum projects began in October. Improvements include adding secure entrances to several schools.

High school construction will start this spring, and middle school renovation is set to start in June.

7. Janesville murder case ends in hung jury

Angela Major 

Julian Collazo, right, smiles at his defense attorney, Jeffrey Jensen, as he sits in a courtroom at the Rock County Courthouse in Janesville on Oct. 23.

The case of a brutal 2017 Janesville stabbing finally made it to trial in October, but the fate of the accused, Julian Collazo, was not determined.

The defense proposed that Collazo’s girlfriend, Nicole Kazar, was the one who killed Christine Scaccia-Lubeck in a fit of jealous rage. Scaccia-Lubeck, 43, was found in her home, stabbed 33 times. Collazo had relationships with both women, testimony on both sides indicated.

Collazo, now 23, and Kazar, 26, left town in Scaccia-Lubeck’s car soon after the murder and were picked up in Missouri. Collazo was charged with first-degree intentional homicide, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

After three days of testimony, jury members began deliberations on the evening of Oct. 23. They went home for the night and resumed talks the next morning. Then things turned ugly.

The bailiff reported to Judge Barbara McCrory that the atmosphere got so hot that some jurors made physical threats and others cried, leading the bailiff to believe they could not reach a unanimous decision.

Rock County Judge Barbara McCrory declared a mistrial.

The exact source of the argument was never made clear publicly.

The defense and prosecution got back together in front of McCrory on Dec. 18, when McCrory set a weeklong trial to start July 20.

8. Milwaukee Street bridge project hits delays

Angela Major 

The Milwaukee Street bridge finally opened in early December after being under construction for more than a year.

In what became the Gilligan’s Island “three-hour tour” of local road projects, the Milwaukee Street bridge’s removal and reconstruction endured months of delays, mostly because of chronic high water on the Rock River.

On Dec. 4, the downtown bridge finally reopened to traffic—both ways. There was no fanfare, but West Milwaukee Street businesses sighed with relief after being cut off from traffic for more than a year.

The state Department of Transportation and the contractor, Zenith Tech, repeatedly pushed back the completion date after nearly four months of high, fast water, which overflowed construction cofferdams and prevented crews from working on barge platforms.

In August, Zenith Tech began racking up thousands of dollars in daily penalties from the DOT as the completion deadline came and went.

Meanwhile, the city began to pressure the contractor to get the bridge to a state that would allow it to reopen.

More work remains on the bridge’s south sidewall and sidewalk—whenever river levels recede to a level that allows crews to get back to work.

9. Janesville Mall tapped as sports complex site

Anthony Wahl 

The northeast corner of the Janesville Mall, the site of the former JCPenney store, has been suggested as a location for the city’s proposed indoor sports complex.

A private fundraising committee, Friends of the Indoor Sports Complex, has started sniffing around for money to help build a city-operated indoor sports complex at the Janesville Mall.

This year, the city council, plan commission, and the parks and recreation advisory committee approved the mall as the preferred location for the complex.

The project has been touted as a public-private partnership since the wheels started turning in 2016, and construction is not a sure thing.

The desired complex is estimated to cost about $33 million. Janesville Jets President Bill McCoshen said in October the private sector likely won’t be able to raise half that amount, despite fundraisers’ previous hopes.

That means taxpayers would have to cover the rest, and it’s currently unclear how much the city would be willing to borrow to make the complex happen.

Local hockey enthusiasts have said for years that the existing ice arena is outdated.

The friends group is expected to provide a fundraising update in early 2020. The earliest the complex could open is fall 2022.

10. New UW-Whitewater chancellor completes first semester after predecessor resigns

Anthony Wahl 

Dwight Watson became the 17th chancellor of UW-Whitewater in 2019.

As everyone else wraps up their calendar year, new UW-Whitewater Chancellor Dwight Watson this month completed his first semester at the helm of the university.

The first half of 2019 was dedicated to replacing former Chancellor Beverly Kopper, who resigned months after UW System President Ray Cross banned her husband, Alan “Pete” Hill, from campus in 2018 after repeated accusations of sexual harassment.

Documents released in April showed investigators found no direct evidence that Kopper knew of her husband’s “pervasive and well-known” harassment. At the same time, investigators wrote that it was “at best” a “blind spot” for her, and they raised questions about her handling of the situation and her leadership ability.

Kopper responded that the investigative report was “rampant with speculation.

Concerns were raised about the search process. David Simmons, the university’s faculty senate chairman during the search, shared in an open letter that he thought the faculty had been “marginalized” and not given a chance to provide enough input.

However, in May, the UW System announced Watson as UW-W’s 17th chancellor.

Watson most recently was the provost and vice president of academic and student affairs at Southwest Minnesota State University. In an August interview, he spoke about his affinity for night walks and his plan to attack declining enrollment by recruiting more diverse and nontraditional students.

Kopper was supposed to teach psychology classes in fall, but she remained on paid leave. Her plans for the spring semester are not immediately clear, and The Gazette has a pending open records request about her fall semester leave.

Angela Major's Favorite Photos of 2019
Anthony Wahl's Favorite Photos of 2019

Crime
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Looking at life in prison, town of Delavan man pleads guilty to murdering his wife

ELKHORN

A town of Delavan man is looking at spending the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty Monday to murdering his wife in January—less than three weeks after she had filed for divorce.

Robert J. Scott, 57, pleaded guilty in Walworth County Court to first-degree intentional homicide in the stabbing death of Rochelle Scott, 58, on Jan. 6 at their home at 4003 S. Channel Drive.

It was the only charge he faced in the case, and a conviction on that charge requires life imprisonment. A judge will decide in March how much of that is in prison—at least 20 years—as opposed to extended supervision, which Robert Scott will be on for the remainder of his life if he is released.

Robert Scott withdrew his plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect before pleading guilty.

Questions about his competency to proceed with court matters had been raised over the last several months. Ultimately, Judge Phillip Koss confirmed he was competent after testimony from experts and psychological evaluations.

A psychologist who evaluated Robert Scott for his mental illness plea wrote in a letter filed with the court Monday that shortly after she started her interview Nov. 6, he told her, “I’m not real comfortable with this.” She also wrote that he then became silent and declined to participate in the assessment.

Steven Harvey, Robert Scott’s lawyer, said Monday in court that his client did not want to disclose details about what happened. Koss ordered a presentence investigation but stressed to Scott that no one could make him answer questions.

“He finds his privacy about this incident very important,” Harvey said.

On the Sunday morning when the stabbing occurred, town of Delavan police responded to the home and found Robert Scott standing in the driveway, according to the criminal complaint.

He had stabbed Rochelle Scott more than 20 times and said in a 911 call quoted in the complaint, “I just murdered my wife,” “I stabbed her” and “She’s dead.”

The murder was one of three homicides within seven months in Walworth County—all no more than 5 miles apart.

Some of those who knew the victim and attended the plea hearing teared up when Robert Scott entered his plea and formally admitted to killing his wife.

District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld said no plea offers were made.

Robert Scott, who has grown out his hair and a beard since he was in jail, said he was working as a driver for FedEx. He said he has never received treatment for a mental illness.

Koss is scheduled to determine the length of the prison term at 2 p.m. March 12.


Obituaries and death notices for Dec. 31, 2019

Laurie A. Balk

Quentin Austin Castillo

Carol Virginia Elmer

William E. Field

Richard “Dick” Jerslid

Carol Ann Krueger

Sharon A. Rauschenburger