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Top stories of 2014

Here are Ashland Daily Tiding' picks for 2014's top stories of local significance, either because of their impact to the community, readers' interest, or both.

1. Changes at Southern Oregon University: After eight years as president of Southern Oregon University, marked by relentless state budget cuts and a faculty vote of no confidence, Mary Cullinan announced in June she’d leave effective July 1 to become president of Eastern Washington University on Aug. 1.

In March, 63 percent of faculty at SOU voted that they were not confident in Cullinan's leadership. The vote was just below a two-thirds threshold that faculty needed to make a formal recommendation to the Oregon chancellor for Cullinan's removal.

A retrenchment plan, hammered out at the same time as the no-confidence vote and in the midst of faculty contract negotiations, will proceed over the next four years and "will be easy" for the new president to enact, Cullinan said.

It cuts 80 positions, most through retirements and restructuring, and saves $6.1 million a year.

Not long after the retrenchment was announced and the no-confidence vote cast, Cullinan began searching for new work, ending up a finalist for the top job at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Roy Hirofumi Saigo, 73, a president emeritus of a Minnesota college, was swiftly chosen to receive a two-year contract as interim president of SOU. The president of Saint Cloud State University from 2000 to 2007, Saigo was called a "turnaround" leader in higher education by Oregon University System officials.

Saigo is overseeing SOU as it and the other six public universities gain independence from the Board of Higher Education by establishing their own governing boards.

In November, the Oregon University System announced SOU, which had been expected to see a slight decline in enrollment for the third year in a row, instead went up 1.02 percent to just more than 6,200. It was one of only two campuses in the OUS system to record an increase.

In April, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education endorsed the creation of an institutional board for SOU, which will take over governance of the university in July. Governor John Kitzhaber announced, and the state legislature confirmed, the final members of the 15-member board that takes over in July.

2. Marijuana: Recreational marijuana legalized; medical dispensaries suspended in Ashland, then allowed, and a tax rate set for recreational use:

Oregon voters approved the legalization of recreational cannabis during the November election, but the controversy over the drug continues in Jackson County. 

Many cities, including Medford, Ashland, Central Point and Gold Hill, have placed city taxes on marijuana, though Measure 91's language does not allow that. Jackson County will also put its own proposed tax before voters this March.

Ashland City Councilors enacted a moratorium in April to give Ashland time to work out city regulations governing the location and operation of medical marijuana dispensaries. Regulations were approved in August and the moratorium was lifted.

Councilors also voted to impose a tax rate of 10 percent on recreational marijuana. 

3. Drought — water use cutback, hookup complete to TAP system: With historically low snowpack levels, the city of Ashland, which depends on melt-water to flow into its reservoirs into the summer, decided to accelerate completion of a project connecting the Talent Ashland Phoenix (TAP) water line to Ashland's system, asked city residents to conserve water. Both happened. Water use during the summer historically rose to 7 million gallons per day due to high levels of irrigation, but in 2014 held to about 4.5 million gallons per day, a reduction of about 35 percent. Availability of water from the TAP line, which comes from the Medford Water Commission, was initially planned for construction in 2015, but with drought conditions becoming apparent in the spring, city officials agreed that the back-up water source may be needed earlier. The two-year planned project was fast-tracked, completed in six months and finished under budget. 

4. Mt. Ashland doesn’t open for 2013-2014 season: The ski area was unable to open during the 2013-14 season because of historically low snow levels on the mountain, the first time the area's slopes went untrod by skis and boards in 50 years. It took out a $750,000 Small Business Administration lifeline loan in the spring to stay afloat. There was enough snow for the ski area to open for the 2014-15 season on Dec. 19.

5. Jackson County bans GMO crops: Two-thirds of Jackson County voters in May approved an ordinance banning the growth of genetically modified crops in the county.

Since then, two local GMO alfalfa farms have sued the county, saying the ban violates the Oregon's Right to Farm Act and that they would lose millions of dollars if forced to tear up their crops. 

The county has said the voter-approved ban will not be enforced as long as the issue is being litigated in U.S. District Court.

6. National champion Raiders: The Southern Oregon University Raiders football team won its first-ever NAIA national championship in Daytona, Fla., on Dec. 19. In coach Craig Howard’s fourth season at SOU, the journey culminated with a 55-31 triumph over Marian of Indianapolis, Ind., just one shy of the record for points in the NAIA championship game. Quarterback Austin Dodge threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns. The Raiders went 13-2 and Dodge was also dubbed the NAIA national player of the year. Dodge obliterated the national record book, establishing career marks for 154 passing touchdowns, 17,250 passing yards, 1,253 completions, 1,955 attempts, 17,566 total yards and 373.7 yards per game on the season.The Raiders paraded through the streets of Ashland two days after the championship game, waving at the red-and-black clad crowd, trophy shining beside them.

7. Hospital stabilizes under new ownership: After years of hemorrhaging millions of dollars, Ashland's hospital is turning around its finances and boosting services after a merger with Asante Health System. The struggling independent hospital had been on the brink of closure before it merged to create Asante Ashland Community Hospital in 2013. Ashland Community Hospital suffered a more than $4.2 million net loss for the fiscal year that began in 2012, then another $3.6 million loss in 2013. After the merger, the hospital's losses were reduced to an estimated $1.5 million for the fiscal year that began in October 2013 and ended in September. The hospital hopes to have a positive operating margin of $100,000 to $200,000 for the current fiscal year that began in October.

8. Plastic bag ban: Ashland in April banned plastic bags, effective Nov. 6. Businesses are required to provide a paper bag upon request and must charge the customer at least 10 cents for each paper bag. The hope is that people bring their own shopping bags with them when they shop.

9. Ashland Community Resource Center opens: The Ashland Community Resource Center opened in February on Clover Lane to help homeless people and others in need. A report issued four months after its launch found it had already helped nine unemployed people find jobs, nine families find housing and volunteers have assisted many more with resumes and job searches. The families were previously living in places such as a tent, a vehicle, a broken-down recreational vehicle, under bushes and in a homeless shelter. Services include housing help, rental assistance, bus passes, camping gear, clothing, hot showers and a clothes laundry. About one-third of those helped were not homeless. The center is operated by the long-established Medford social services agency ACCESS and the grassroots Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland.

10. Wrong-way driver kills 911 dispatcher: On March 27, a Grants Pass man allegedly drove the wrong way on Interstate 5 while drunk and slammed his car head-on into a 911 dispatcher's car near exit 24, killing her. Richard Webster Scott, 43, was charged with first-degree manslaughter, driving under the influence of intoxicants, reckless endangerment and reckless driving after the crash killed 58-year-old Karen Lee Greenstein of Ashland. Greenstein was on her way home from a shift at Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon at 3:15 a.m. when the crash occurred. The Jackson County District Attorney's Office has said the case remains in a holding pattern, as Scott had been ordered to a state hospital so he can undergo an evaluation that would show whether he was mentally fit to stand trial. The next pre-trial conference is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 5, court records say.