Top 10 Stories of Year: Dominated by COVID-19, but other things happened

News Analysis

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By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

It’s never been more obvious what the top story of a year was, as 2020 will always be remembered as the year a global pandemic stopped life as we know it everywhere. But South County also made national news with a very inspiring teacher.

1. Coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic was 10 separate stories in and of itself, as every event that would take place in a normal year was canceled or substantially changed. Life was not the same in 2020 as it was in 2019 — and hopefully will be by this time next year. Masks became a political issue, public health took center stage, we worked from home, most schools and nearly all government meetings went virtual, small businesses struggled and many residents battled health problems.

South County led the region in cases starting in July, a trend that has never let up. But two vaccines offered hope at the end of the year. Here’s to 2021.

2. Crestwood mall developer lost and found. Ironically, this is a top story in a year when visiting a mall, any type of retail, movie theaters or even restaurants was fraught with public-health concerns.

The May news that Creve Coeur-based developer Walpert Properties was pulling out of its $300 million proposed redevelopment was indicative of the widespread financial issues caused by a worldwide pandemic. It seemed like any redevelopment might be delayed for years.

But Crestwood officials pulled out a present just before Christmas: Two St. Louis companies, McBride Homes and Dierbergs Market, were partnering on a mixed-use development that will include retail and a new residential subdivision. Quite frankly, the announcement was one of the few good things that happened in 2020. Will this project succeed where three other proposals haven’t? It’s an open question, but city officials note that McBride and Dierbergs are local businesses who are committed to the community and have the financial backing to see this through. Stay tuned in 2021.

3. Elections. While people were largely confined to their homes, one aspect of civic life still went on, with some adaptations. Three major elections in the last half of the year came with major consequences for South County. First, in the April municipal election that was delayed to June, Sunset Hills Mayor Pat Fribis survived a challenge for a third term from opponent John Stephens.

Next, voters chose in the August primary among four Democratic candidates for county executive and two Republicans, while the Democratic side of the 6th District County Council race had three candidates. In November, Democratic incumbent County Executive Sam Page easily held off Republican Paul Berry, although Berry later said the election should be thrown out. Democratic 6th District primary winner Bob Burns vigorously challenged incumbent Republican Councilman Ernie Trakas, but voters gave Trakas a second term in office (see below).                 

4. Lindbergh Prop R bond issue contiues to reap benefits. The $105 million no-tax-rate-increase bond issue that Lindbergh Schools voters approved in April 2019, Proposition R, started to pay off visible dividends this year. Construction kicked off on the new $89 million Lindbergh High School, and most of the schools now have secure vestibules, with two schools set for construction next summer. Lindbergh students will be reaping the benefits of Prop R for many years to come, but 2020 is when it all got started.

5. Mehlville bond issue. In stark contrast to Lindbergh, Mehlville School District voters haven’t approved a bond issue since 1992. For years, district officials pointed to 2020 as the year when that might happen, not predicting a global pandemic. Instead, the district will ask voters for a $35 million 12-cent no-tax-rate-increase bond issue on the ballot this April. See Page 17A.

6. Trakas re-elected. Ernie Trakas had an eventful first four years in office, and it looks like that will continue for his next four years. With his willingness to partner with Democrats and his unpredictability when it comes to what stance he will take on county issues, it will never be “business as usual” with Trakas holding this office.

7. Chief Belmar retires, Chief Barton takes over. Following the county’s $12 million settlement with now-Lt. Keith Wildhaber, an Oakville resident who sued the department for discrimination and received a verdict of $20 million from a jury that believed he was passed over because he was gay,  Chief Jon Belmar took only a few months to announce that he would retire. But that was actually the calm before the storm, as the department’s first female police chief, Capt. Mary Barton, took over and immediately took criticism for telling the County Council that there is not systemic racism in the police department. Perhaps proving the point of those critics, as The Call was going to press, Barton’s 911 dispatcher brother-in-law had left the department after he was placed on leave for calling a black officer a racial slur on the radio, thinking the button was turned off.

8. Mr. DC inspires across the country. One of the highlights of 2020 for South County came from making national news for the inspiring story of Crestwood Elementary physical-education teacher Darrion Cockrell, which you read first in The Call before it was picked up by CNN and CBS. “Mr. DC,” as his students and fellow teachers call him, was first named Lindbergh Teacher of the Year in a videconferenced announcement that could make a stone statue smile. Then he was chosen by Chance the Rapper as one of the first teachers ever honored at the Twilight Awards, a brand-new awards show for teachers nationwide. But it got even better, as Mr. DC was named Missouri Teacher of the Year and, we suspect, will be competing vigorously for the National Teacher of the Year title announced in May. We are all cheering him on, and Mr. DC just might be one of our top stories for 2021 too.

9. County Council drama. If you thought the drama surrounding the St. Louis County Council was over when former County Executive Steve Stenger went to a South Dakota prison, well, we like your optimism, but you were mistaken. The council met most of the year by videoconferencing due to the pandemic, a decision that actually increased public participation and comments but may have reduced congeniality among council members. See Page 6A for more.

10 Rugby’s ripple effects. Sunset Hills residents who live near a rugby facility proposed for the site that used to be Sunset Hills Golf Course continued to object to the city leasing the property for the site (see Page 7A). A traffic study failed, Fribis vetoed, and none of the three aldermen who voted for the rugby site and were up for re-election chose to run again.