Year in review, part 2: A look at the stories that gripped Moffat County in 2009 |

Year in review, part 2: A look at the stories that gripped Moffat County in 2009

The Craig City Council handled its share of controversies in the past year, first getting embroiled in a First Amendment lawsuit and then tackling how it should regulate medical marijuana inside city limits.

At the same time, Moffat County saw $20.5 million pumped into the area from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Many local officials, however, decried the spending as largely wasteful and said it wouldn't have much impact on Moffat County residents or the local economy.

What follows is the second part of a look at some of the biggest stories of the year, as chosen by the Daily Press staff.

The first installment can be seen at, or in Friday's Daily Press.

ACLU v. city of Craig

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Francisco Reina, a local resident who emigrated from Spain decades ago, lost his bid for Craig City Council in April, but that didn't keep him out of the news for the next several months.

The council decided to charge him with a municipal violation for spending too much of his own money on his campaign — a violation of the city charter.

The city dropped its charge, however, after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a countersuit on Reina's behalf in Moffat County District Court.

The ACLU claimed the city charter provision on campaign spending violated the right to free speech, a position upheld by a 1976 Supreme Court decision.

The city agreed to settle out of court and pay $2,243.50 for Reina's attorneys' fees and permanently void the charter provision unless the Supreme Court reverses its earlier ruling.

Residents disagreed, however, and voted to keep the provision in the November general election despite its apparent unconstitutionality, and the fact the city is legally prohibited from enforcing it.

Sticky situation

Craig was one of the cities across Colorado to face several issues surrounding medical marijuana in 2009.

For several months, the council debated whether it should regulate marijuana dispensaries — commercial storefronts that distribute medical marijuana to registered patients — and how to do so within the limits of the law.

In November — after two, 60-day moratoriums preventing any new dispensaries from opening — the council approved an ordinance restricting new dispensaries from opening within 500 feet of schools and public parks, or 100 feet of a residence.

Although the ordinance put several restrictions on dispensaries and their owners, Councilor Byron Willems and several city residents opposed its approval.

They said the city should vote for an outright ban of all medical marijuana dispensaries and fight any lawsuits in court.

Other city officials rejected the proposal on the grounds that medical marijuana is allowed by the Colorado Constitution.

The new New Deal

In an effort to slow the spread of the national recession, the federal government approved hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus spending, about $20.5 million of which was allocated in and around Moffat County.

The majority of that money — about $13.1 million — went toward building a new Quarry Visitor Center at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, near the Colorado border.

A total of $18.3 million went to fund projects for government agencies, including the Dinosaur project as well as $3.8 million to study carbon sequestration in the hills between Craig and Hamilton.

The next largest project was $1.2 million to install solar panels on government buildings in Browns Park and build a wind turbine there.

Local political officials expressed disappointment in the spending and said the chosen projects would do very little to buoy the local economy or put residents to work. That the largest project — plans for a new Dinosaur visitor center — would take place in Utah only exacerbated their doubts.

Sad passings

As time passes, so do those around us.

The last year will be remembered in part for those taken suddenly and without warning, however. Here are a few of those who died in 2009.

• Carol Jacobson, who owned Downtown Books and played a role in numerous community projects and organizations, died in July at age 54 in a drowning accident while river rafting in Dinosaur National Monument.

• Cory Pike, a 20-year-old student at Colorado State University, died in November, six months after being diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma.

• Brett Stearns was 29 when he died in June after an accident while working with other Bureau of Land Management firefighters.

• Craig Police Officer Kathie Johnson, 51, died in October from complications with a seizure disorder while out of town at an animal control conference.

Each of them left behind many friends and family, hundreds of whom packed each of their respective memorial services.

Taking in 'Taking Chance'

In February, HBO Films premiered the Kevin Bacon-vehicle, "Taking Chance," a film based on a Marine Corps officer's journal of transporting the body of former Craig resident Chance Phelps home to his family in Wyoming.

Lance Cpl. Phelps, who spent 12 years of his childhood living in Craig, was killed April 9, 2004, by enemy gunfire in the Al Anbar Province in Iraq.

He was 19.

Bacon portrayed Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, who escorted Phelps' body home.

"Taking Chance," which is still shown on the cable network, provided a moving portrait of the care, dignity and respect the military shows its fallen soldiers upon returning them home to their loved ones.

Filmmakers had the blessing of Phelps' family, some of whom live in Craig today.

The film also was screened on Veterans Day in November before the student body at Moffat County High School, where Phelps once attended school. The film, it should be noted, resonated with many of the students who watched it, as well as viewers across the country.

A somber anniversary

Nov. 21, 2009, marked a tragic reminder for a former local family that their daughter, Marie Ann Blee, had been missing from them for 30 years. Thirty years, and with no answers as to why and how she was taken from them.

Paul and Mona Blee, who are now in their 70s and live in Grand Junction, aren't after whoever is responsible for their daughter's disappearance anymore.

They simply want to know what happened to their little girl, who was 15 at the time of her disappearance.

"It's been a nightmare," Mona told the Daily Press in November, a few days before the 30th anniversary. "It's something we think about every day."

Added Paul, "We think about our parents, we don't have any tears there. We talk about Marie and they start falling. (It's) because of the not knowing, I guess."

Marie was last seen at a party in the Shadow Mountain Clubhouse, a subdivision outside of Craig. Her case remains an open investigation with the Moffat County Sheriff's Office.

Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or

Other notables

• Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4265 begins planning Adams memorial. Local military veterans plan to construct a memorial to one of Craig’s heroes, Maj. William E. Adams, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for trying to evacuate wounded soldiers from a hostile area in Vietnam.

• City Council approves all-terrain and off-highway vehicles for public streets. After a detailed petition from local residents, city officials approved an ordinance that allows ATVs and OHVs on city streets, provided they meet certain safety and insurance requirements.

• November election draws one of the lowest voter turnouts in Moffat County history. A total of 1,005 people — or 11.5 percent of registered voters — cast a ballot in the November general election, which was the lowest turnout of any election since 1990, other than primaries in 2000 and 2008.

• City completes $9 million water plant upgrade. Although the plant experienced a few problems after initial work was completed, its capacity has been doubled to 12 million gallons a day, which city leaders hope will be enough to sustain the community for another 10 to 20 years.

• Craig Mortensen reaches 500 career coaching wins. The Moffat County High School girls basketball coach reached the personal milestone Feb. 17, and was then nominated to the Colorado High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame on Feb. 23.

Read the first part of our Year in Review story here.

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