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Reports from Carolina Public Press in 2016 were full of tragedy, injustice, democracy sputtering and burning forests. That’s not to say nothing good happened this year and CPP didn’t report on it – but the most urgent news includes the items with the most potential to harm us.

As the year ends, CPP looks back on its biggest stories of 2016. These are not necessarily the biggest news items in the nation, state or even the Western North Carolina region, but those on which CPP reported, with its in-depth, investigative and analytical approach.

For the year, CPP published 150 original news reports from its team of journalists and freelance contributors. Some items of importance received just one article. Some topics reappeared more than a dozen times throughout the year.

Counting down the top 10:

1. Mental-health care in WNC

A company operating family-care homes for mentally ill adults in Buncombe County was incorporated as “Nutz R Us.” If that seemed cavalier and insulting to their clients, state inspection reports and staff social media posts confirmed the company’s contempt for those it was supposed to be helping. The initial June 23 article on Nutz R Us was the top-read single item of the year and CPP’s fourth-highest ever. After it appeared, the company changed its name. Whether other changes are being implemented remains unclear.

CPP also took a hard look July 18 at the way the state organizes mental-health care provider organizations, especially in Western North Carolina. Thanks to multiple waves of consolidation over the last decade, the situation has led to confusion and difficulty with accountability for treatment outcomes.

2. Felicia Reeves

Most readers had never heard of Felicia Reeves, a young woman from Hendersonville who disappeared in August 2015 and turned up dead in a New Jersey motel a week later. But as a result of multiple reports from CPP, authorities have opened a new investigation into her death, which has now received attention from multiple TV, radio and print and other online news media as well. CPP also tracked down what happened to Reeves’ young son, learning that he was adopted by a Transylvania County family, though questions remain about why her family was kept out of the loop.

Regardless of what authorities ultimately decide about her death, Reeves’ story offers a tragic example of a system that failed a person in every way – as a service member who was raped, a veteran needing substantial medical and mental-health care, a battered wife who believed couldn’t trust authorities to protect her or her children, and ultimately a woman whose strange death wasn’t initially worth investigating.

But everyone is someone’s friend, sister, daughter and mother. And the people to whom she mattered to fought to have her case brought to light and examined fully.

CPP’s journalists spent more time investigating the case of Felicia Reeves, beginning in late 2015, than any other topic addressed in 2016. The initial Feb. 29 article about her was the third-highest-read article of the year and the Sept. 26 article about her son’s whereabouts was the fifth-highest. Many people have now heard of Felicia Reeves and her story is not one that will be forgotten soon.

3. Coal Ash

North Carolina has been trying to decide what to do with coal ash left over from coal-burning power plants for some time. State policy decisions came to a head in 2016. Two coal-ash basins operated by Duke Power in Western North Carolina – in Rutherford County’s Cliffside community and in southern Buncombe County – underscore the importance of the issue here.

Even as the policy debate continues, so does the debate over the extent of pollution linked to coal ash and its potential for harm. For residents living near unlined coal ash basins, fears about the safety of drinking water draw power from the unknown. Some residents told horror stories about health problems in their communities. But Duke Power officials could point to studies suggesting the improbability of contamination, the natural origin of suspected contaminants and the doubtful health effects of these pollutants. Environmental groups could also point to evidence saying the opposite.

After the laws that legislators hammered out several years ago led to rulings on coal-ash that would have forced Duke to excavate its basins, legislators intervened to rewrite the laws and Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Duke employee, went along with the revisions. WNC legislators were divided, but the General Assembly leadership firmly backed the pro-Duke measure. It may have been one of several actions that would cost McCrory re-election, but the exact political impact remains unclear.

CPP wrote about coal ash and related issues in more than 15 articles in 2016. Expect more in 2017.

4. U.S. National Forest policy

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The U.S. Forest Service is nearing the end of a long process in crafting a new master plan for managing national forests in Western North Carolina. Some say what happens here will set the tone for the entire eastern United States in the near future. A diverse group of stakeholders has been meeting to explore differences and common ground in the process. Carolina Public Press has reported on developments throughout.

In early 2016, tensions emerged within the stakeholders over several key issues, especially related to the expansion of wilderness areas. Several local governments issued resolutions opposing expansion, while a few voted for strong conservation measures.

One idea of what’s at stake came with the forest fires in November. Nearly everyone involved in the process dislikes wildfires, but different sides favor different approaches to managing forests and protecting them against fires and other threats. The situation risks becoming enmeshed in national political debates. But for many WNC residents and visitors who love the forests and live within them, the policy questions have very personal implications.

5. North Carolina General Assembly and House Bill 2

During an election year, the North Carolina General Assembly normally meets for a truncated session in which legislators propose less major legislation, a system called “the short session.” Then there was 2016, in which the General Assembly conducted multiple special sessions, to address a range of issues. But by far the most contentious issue was House Bill 2, which gained approval in a March special session. Ostensibly a bill to require people to use public restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates, the measure’s timing came in response to an anti-discrimination measure the city of Charlotte passed to protect transgender people. Lawmakers claimed the Charlotte law risked allowing cross-dressing pedophiles to invade restrooms to prey on children, but opponents questioned whether such a pattern of criminal behavior even exists. CPP brought to light the other side HB2 – it stripped a range of anti-discrimination protections from state law. The measure drew widespread criticism from the left, though many on the right defended it. In protest, corporations cancelled plans to locate in North Carolina and celebrities cancelled events, including several in Western North Carolina. Lawsuits are still working their ways through courts.

The General Assembly met in December for three additional special sessions, the first of which approved relief for areas affected by Hurricane Matthew and the wildfires that hit parts of WNC. The second special session passed measures to limit the powers of the governor and the state Supreme Court – expect legal challenges to those laws in 2017. A third special session attempted to repeal HB2, but the sides could not agree on the details, with some Republicans opposed to any repeal and others pushing a moratorium on municipal anti-discrimination laws that was too much of a poisoned pill for Democratic legislators. Gov.-elect Roy Cooper has said he’ll push for repeal again in 2017, so stay tuned.

6. Extraordinary elections

Even years are election years for most county, state and federal offices (with most North Carolina municipalities conducting elections in odd years), so 2016 appeared to be part of the routine even if some races were shaping up a bit unusually by the beginning of the year. But surprises came in multiple rounds.

A federal court struck down the state’s congressional districts, so the General Assembly had to meet in special session to draw up new districts, while continuing to appeal the ruling. Primary ballots had already been printed, but the congressional races simply wouldn’t count. Then the courts also struck down a new way of electing members of the Supreme Court. The state’s solution was to conduct an extra filing period and a second primary in June to cover elections for Congress and the state Supreme Court. At one point the state Supreme Court was being asked to weigh in on legislation governing the system by which its own members would seek re-election.

When November’s elections finally arrived, some races were very close – including a commission race in Buncombe County and the governor’s race. A challenger took the Supreme Court race, flipping control to the Democrats. Democrats also picked up the governorship once all the votes were counted and numerous challenges repudiated. Republicans held on to both houses of the General Assembly. Get ready for divided government. Oh, and challenges to legislative districts, as well as the appeals on those congressional districts, are still moving their ways through federal courts. North Carolina helped put Republican Donald Trump in the White House, where he will appoint someone to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, immediately shifting the calculus of what could happen in those federal cases, especially with a change in control of the Justice Department. Interesting times are here to stay.

7. Human trafficking

In two major investigative reports and a public forum, CPP explored the problem of human trafficking in Western North Carolina. Many people assume it’s an issue overseas or in larger towns, but it’s here as well. And “human trafficking” often consists of being raped repeatedly every day. Victims may not be who you assume and can come from many walks of life. Offenders can include boyfriends, parents or spouses. Drugs, economic leverage, immigration status or threat of criminal prosecution often isolate victims who believe they won’t survive if they try to get out.

Human services groups and law enforcement continue seeking solutions, but answers can be elusive. Even getting a firm grasp on the scope of the problem in this region invites debate. Awareness of the human trafficking in Western North Carolina is just emerging, and it doesn’t show signs of going away.

8. Cherokee change

Several CPP reports in 2016 focused on substantial changes taking place within the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Included are strict bans on tribe members who have engaged in drug trafficking and consideration of legalized marijuana. Changes have also taken root at the One Feather, the tribal newspaper. The direction, pace and sustenance of these trends will be worth watching in 2017.

9. The death of Jai Williams

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Police Sgt. Tyler Radford fatally shot Jai Lateef “Jerry” Williams in Asheville on July 2. Radford said Williams had a rifle and refused to put it down. Some witnesses gave contrary descriptions to police and news outlets. Radford is white. Williams was black. In a national atmosphere of outrage over questionable police shootings of African American men, much early news coverage suggested this was another such incident. Protesters gathered in Asheville, as elsewhere. But the facts of the case didn’t match up well with those other incidents. And inflammatory statements from supposed witnesses and Williams’ friends and supporters didn’t always measure up against the factual record. In the obsessive atmosphere over police shootings, other narratives received less attention.

CPP, which generally focuses on investigative journalism rather than breaking news, was not among the first or even second wave of media outlets to report on the July 2 death of Jai Williams. But as time went on, CPP became aware of issues surrounding the high-profile case that had not received much attention. In an Aug. 5 report, CPP explored Williams’ substantial criminal history, including a conviction involving a stolen gun and an incident in which police arrested him fleeing after breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s residence. A follow-up report on August 10 showed that Williams had been banned from two of the places he went the day he died, the Pisgah View and Deaverview apartment complexes.

In mid-December the district attorney announced that the police officer would not be charged. He was able to reveal facts for the first time that supported one of the possible narratives CPP had explored in earlier reports — that Williams posed a threat to his passengers and Sgt. Radford. Once all the evidence was in, it showed that Williams, angry and drunk, fired his rifle in the air during a dispute with another man at Pisgah View apartments, then fled with his passengers who became disturbed by his reckless behavior. Sgt. Radford gave chase, leading to the shooting. Williams had the gun in his hands and appeared to be bringing it up to fire at the officer as Radford fired first. Passengers said Williams kept repeating that he wasn’t going back to jail and they believed he was prepared to shoot Radford.

Police are still conducting an administrative review of the case, so at least one more chapter is expected in 2017.

10. Asheville water

Legislators in 2013 approved a sweeping measure to seize control of Asheville’s water and sewer systems, placing them under a new regional authority. A trial court struck down the measure because it sought to regulate the health and sanitation of a single locale, action that the state constitution doesn’t allow. But in October 2015, the Court of Appeals said the lower court erred, since the degree to which the law was about health and sanitation was mostly incidental. The city appealed and CPP covered each stage of the process. In a 5-2 December 2016 ruling, the state Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, ruling that the trial court was correct after all. Writing for the majority, Justice Sam Ervin wrote noted that legislators had written the measure creatively to conceal its local nature, appearing to create a special class of municipality to be regulated, but tailoring the wording so that Asheville was the only city that would be affected.

Lawmakers could try to pass a similar law again in 2017. Whether it could survive a likely gubernatorial veto and continued court scrutiny remains to be seen.

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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