Top news stories of 2022: The good, the bad and emergence from the pandemic

Dec. 31—2022 was a year that saw the return of the Great Falls Balloon Festival and dozens of other community events as pandemic restrictions eased. Our schools reopened in full, restaurants welcomed droves of eat-in customers, and Auburn saw a record year for building permits.

At the same time, bus drivers in Auburn — tired of low pay and a poor work environment — left for other districts. The courts handled hundreds of cases stalled under COVID restrictions, and debate raged over redevelopment efforts in Auburn, including rezoning efforts near Lake Auburn.

We take a look at these and other top stories locally of 2022.

In February, the Sun Journal spoke with six bus drivers who left the Auburn school district within the past calendar year. Each said poor management and a negative work environment were major reasons they decided to leave.

In several school districts around the area, parents led a drive to get a pair of books banned from school libraries. The focus of the controversy was on "Gender Queer," a graphic novel exploring gender identity and sexuality, and "White Fragility, a book about race relations in the United States. Ultimately, most school districts chose to keep the books in their libraries although at least one district opted to ban "Gender Queer" from its library.

Early in the year, Maine School Administrative District 17 Superintendent Monica Henson resigned in April following a vote of no confidence by the teachers union and being placed on administrative leave by the board of directors. At issue was Henson's physical restraint of a student at Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris in September 2021. The District Attorney's Office declined to press charges, saying her physical restraint of a student does not meet the legal standard of unreasonable force.

Nine faculty positions were eliminated at the University of Maine Farmington: Professors of philosophy and religion, women's and gender studies, history, and world languages were either let go or offered jobs in other areas. They were also advisers for many diverse student unions on campus.

Oxford Hills won the state football championship. The 21-7 win over Thornton in November capped a perfect 11-0 season by the Vikings.

Late in the year, Auburn special education announced it would move out of Lake Street School, leaving other districts to scramble for services. School officials voted to make the move after administrators learned of costly repairs to the building.

In September, Auburn resident Steven Downs was sentenced to 75 years in prison after he was convicted in the cold-case 1993 killing of an Alaska woman. But the trial of The State of Alaska v. Steven Downs began in secret, and might have stayed that way if not for a Sun Journal fight to open the court proceedings to the public.

On Thanksgiving Day, police discovered a heinous killing at a trailer park in Poland. Dead was 38-year-old Gabe Damour. Police would ultimately arrest Damour's brother, 34-year-old Justin Butterfield, in the dismemberment slaying. What followed was an outcry from friends and family members of Butterfield who had been trying to get psychiatric help for him for many years.

A judge accepted an insanity plea of Patrick Maher in the double murder of a couple in Turner. Maher, 24 at the time, was charged in the 2021 killings of Troy Varney, 52, and Dulsie Varney, 48, at their Knight Farm Road home.

In May, a Lewiston District Court judge was appointed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Rick Lawrence was sworn in as Maine's first Black Supreme Judicial Court justice.

Criminal prosecution leadership in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties was cast into doubt in the spring with the resignation of the deputy district attorney. Before his resignation, Andrew Matulis had been named by District Attorney Andrew Robinson to assume the mantle of top prosecutor for the tri-county offices when Robinson was nominated by Gov. Janet Mills for a judgeship on the Maine District Court. Robinson was confirmed to the bench by the Maine Senate on April 5 and sworn into office on April 6.

A jury in September awarded $5.5 million to the daughter of a man whose body lay decomposing for weeks in the basement of a Lewiston funeral home a year before. It was the first case to go to trial after more than a dozen people filed lawsuits against Kenneth Kincer, the owner of Affordable Cremation Solution on Main Street in Lewiston.

In September, 21-year-old Emmanuel Nkurunziza was sentenced on a charge of criminally negligent manslaughter four years after Donald Giusti was felled by a rock near Kennedy Park during a melee with largely Somali youths. Nkurunziza was sentenced to 10 years in prison with all but nine months suspended.

Inner-city In midsummer, Lewiston and Auburn police struggled to assure a rattled population that in spite of frequent reports of shootings and other violence in both cities, the area was not experiencing a crime wave. The downtown residential area of Lewiston in particular was the scene of numerous shootings over the course of the year.

Over the course of the year, there was much public debate over proposed changes in watershed regulations at Lake Auburn and a zone change that has since been challenged by a petition group. In May, Lewiston filed a lawsuit against the Auburn Water District in Androscoggin County Superior Court. The civil complaint asked the court to declare that the Auburn Water District does not have the authority to change the definition of the watershed or its boundary and that any increased development causing pollution to the lake goes against the Water District's charter and its agreement with Lewiston.

Two adjacent properties on one of the most sought-after waterfront areas on Sebago Lake were at the center of a legal battle between the town of Raymond, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Auburn businessman Donald Buteau and the company that controls his real estate holdings. Buteau faces millions in fines for alleged shoreline violations.

Towns and cities along the Androscoggin River celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

A state judge in October denied a request that would have allowed construction to resume on the stalled Central Maine Power Co.-supported electricity transmission line through Maine. The matter is said to be on a fast track for trial in April.

In Lewiston and Auburn, the matter of homelessness in the community took center stage throughout the year. Homeless encampments were leveled, even as debate raged in Lewiston over whether the city should build a new 24-bed shelter. With winter coming on, many had hoped to see some solution in the offering but in November, a proposed emergency shelter for the region's unhoused population was declared to be in limbo as officials from Lewiston, Auburn and Androscoggin County government were at a standstill over funding. Near the end of the year, the Sun Journal began publishing a multipart series on the matter of homelessness.

In May, the Lewiston City Council voted unanimously on a resolution that "reaffirms" Lewiston's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. The resolution was brought forward after two councilors previously drafted a resolution condemning optional diversity programs for staff at Lewiston schools.

During the course of the year, Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline was often at odds with the City Council. In the spring, councilors previously criticized for unethical behavior were accusing Mayor Carl Sheline of forcing out a member of the Planning Board.

In November, Lewiston city officials approved a tax-increment financing district and $450,000 in federal HOME funds for an 82-unit development that spans an entire block of the downtown Tree Streets neighborhood. The Choice Neighborhoods effort, buoyed by a $30 million grant, continued to move forward throughout the year. The effort is meant to replace distressed housing while investing in child care, health care and workforce development programs to address high rates of poverty and childhood lead poisoning.

In October, the Auburn City Council approved a $700,000 program that will send $300 tax "relief" checks to city homeowners 65 and older who qualify for the state's Homestead Exemption program. The project, coming from the city's allotment of American Rescue Plan Act funds, came forward in response to public concerns over this year's market adjustments in Auburn, which resulted in higher taxes for a large number of residents.

Auburn lost the Holy Donut at the start of the year, but a whole lot of new business came to the city in the months following. It was a record year for investment in Auburn as businesses such as Olive Garden, Five Guys, Otto, Jersey Mike's and Target set up shop in the city.

On Sept. 20, the Pennsylvania-based Pixelle Specialty Solutions said it would close the Androscoggin Mill in Jay in the first quarter of 2023, a move that would put 230 people out of work. An updated timeline indicated the mill would close for good at the end of April.

Steve Roop, the hard-charging, well-known entrepreneur behind the local Roopers beverage chain, died in September. He was 63.

In November, it was announced that Twitchell Airport in Turner, the last in Maine that is privately owned and commercially operated, would cease operation at the end of the month after 76 years.

Components made at Lewiston's Elmet Technologies will be headed to the moon on NASA's Orion capsule, it was announced in November. Onboard the capsule will be tungsten heavy alloy ballast weights used for the all-important heat shield, made by Elmet Technologies on Lisbon Street as part of its expansion into the aerospace field.