The Gazette had no shortage of candidates for its list of this year’s biggest newsmakers. We picked people who shaped issues and events—for better or worse—that matter most to the community. Of course, many people arguably deserving a spot on this list didn’t make it because there simply isn’t enough room. But if readers want to contribute their thoughts about this year’s newsmakers, send us a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org (refer to the bottom of the page for additional details on our letters policy).
Brian Kvapil: He emerged in 2016 as an outspoken critic of an $87 million Milton School District referendum to construct a new high school. Kvapil portrayed the plan as too lavish, and voters rejected the measure. But Kvapil wasn’t finished. This year, he shook up the school board by defeating former Milton School Board President Jon Cruzan in an April election. He again became a voice of dissent, opposing referendum No. 2, a $69.9 million proposal. Most board members dismissed Kvapil’s concerns, concluding voters would approve No. 2 because of the smaller price tag. But Kvapil made another calculation, believing voters had little appetite for a tax hike. Indeed, the $69.9 million proposal lost by a larger margin than the 2016 version. Kvapil alone didn’t defeat the referendums, but he channeled voters’ concerns, and the school board paid for ignoring his perspective with two failed referendums in two years.
Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden: His mishandling of a police investigation into an underage drinking party that his son attended proved the biggest political shock of 2017. Spoden has otherwise excelled at his job since being elected in 2007, which makes all the more disappointing Spoden’s recent defense of his efforts to derail the investigation. The state Department of Justice found no criminal wrongdoing with Spoden’s conduct, but documents reveal Spoden tried to intimidate a Janesville police officer investigating the case. The fallout continues for Spoden, who is up for re-election next year, as the Rock County Board plans to consider a resolution to censure him. This nation holds dear the notion that everyone should be treated equally under the law. Nobody should get a free pass because they’re connected to powerful people, but that seems to be exactly what Spoden wanted for his son and other party attendees.
Daysi Mckay: The 18-year-old demonstrated maturity beyond her years in coping with her mother’s heroin addiction and eventual death. Daysi of Elkhorn became a public face of hope, telling The Gazette, “I don’t want to be that person.” She enrolled as a freshmen at UW-Whitewater this year and has aspirations to become a social worker. She’s endured more trauma than any child deserves to experience, and Gazette readers responded with sympathy and encouragement for her. The Gazette reported this year on several people affected by the heroin epidemic, including mothers Lori Blum and Kathy Kus, whose sons died of overdoses. Their stories reveal a societal failure to address this crisis, though these women are using their tragedies to help others avoid similar fates.
Blackhawk Technical College President Tracy Pierner: Technical colleges tend to be countercyclical, meaning their enrollments slump when the economy is doing well. That’s proven especially true for Blackhawk, which experienced a boom after the GM plant closed in 2009. But it’s been bleeding students for the past several years as the economy has recovered. Enter Pierner. He wasted no time in revamping the college, both by cutting costs through layoffs and adding programs that local business leaders say are needed. Pierner also introduced what’s known as on-demand education, which allows students to enroll in courses at any time instead of waiting until the start of a new semester. After several years of steep declines, Blackhawk’s total enrollment increased by the equivalent of 36 full-time students this year, with welding and automotive technician programs being among the school’s star performers.
Joseph Jakubowski: No list of 2017 newsmakers would be complete without him. Jakubowski was the king newsmaker and continues to make news several months after his capture. His antics—mailing a manifesto to President Trump, robbing a gun store and setting his SUV ablaze—prompted the largest manhunt this area has likely ever experienced. Law enforcement set up a command post in Janesville, though Jakubowski somehow eluded capture for 10 days. Authorities uncovered nothing like a mass-murder plot, but fears of a lone-wolf attack prompted area schools to close and local churches to take precautions. Jakubowski has said he never intended to hurt anyone, though he’s done himself no favors in federal court, delivering an expletive-laden defense of his actions at a sentencing hearing this month. But the story doesn’t end there: Jakubowski also faces state charges, and a trial is set in Rock County Court on Jan. 22. Prepare for more twists to this bizarre story before it’s finished.