Wow, what a year. Looking back at the local news coverage of 2020 and selecting our top stories for our annual year-in-review was quite the task: our news stories ranged from university finances to election coverage to everything pandemic-related, and more.
As promised, here is our list, organized chronologically and unranked. Thanks again for seeing us through our unusual first year in the newsroom of Athens’ favorite newspaper.
— Editor Sydney Dawes and Associate Editor Ben Peters
1. Joe Burrow’s Athens ties remain tight
It was an eventful year for Joe Burrow and his fans.
Weeks after his nationally recognized Heisman acceptance speech sparked mass-donating to the Athens County Food Pantry, the Athens County High School graduate witnessed a string of milestones. Back in January, Burrow saw a dream become reality when he and his Louisiana State University tigers defeated Clemson University 42-25 at the Super Dome in New Orleans, earning a national title.
In April, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Athens County's Joe Burrow with the first overall pick in the first completely remote NFL Draft. The Advocate, a newspaper in Baton Rouge Louisiana, previously reported that the NFL shipped Burrow and 57 other NFL Draft prospects "an unassembled package of tripods, of iPads, of wires" so they could film the moment when each heard his name called by his team of the future. Footage from that set-up played before and during the NFL Draft, showing Joe and his parents, Jimmy and Robin, sitting on a couch at their home in The Plains.
Another Burrow highlight came this summer: the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund was born. Burrow announced this July the partnership with the Athens County Food Pantry and the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio. The Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund is designed to make a difference for the food insecure population of southeast Ohio.
Burrowed kicked off his first season with the Cincinnati Bengals this fall, leading the Bengals to their first season victory (for him, his first NFL win) in October during their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He was injured during a Nov. 22 game against the Washington Football Team, but has been recovering well, per a video of him walking that he posted on his social media recently. Although the injury was a sour end to a first season in the NFL, Athens County Food Pantry president Karin Bright noted the pantry received yet another round of donations in recognition of Burrow around the time of the Washington game.
“The sincerity of that young man has touched so many people,” she told The NEWS.
2. ‘Gun girl’ disrupts Presidents Day in Athens
Presidents Day in pre-pandemic Athens was interrupted by an explosive visit from right-wing provocateur Kaitlin Bennett, the “Kent State gun girl,” who appeared to be swarmed off Ohio University’s campus by hundreds of students displeased with her visit.
Bennett, accompanied by a towering bodyguard and members of her conservative activist website Liberty Hangout, claimed to have dropped by OU to film a video asking students “trivia” questions related to the holiday.
Instead, she was barraged outside of Baker Center’s fourth floor by protesters that demanded she leave town, with some throwing rolls of toilet paper at her in apparent reference to a viral rumor suggesting she defecated herself at a Kent State University party while she was a student. Others pushed into the fray to give Bennett hugs.
The crowd roamed with Bennett around OU’s West Green, then she and her cohort loaded into a truck and left campus less than two hours after arriving.
In recent years Bennett went from a viral open-carry activist to a nationally known conservative media figure famous for creating internet videos where she prods college students about social and political issues. She was not openly carrying a firearm that February afternoon.
Bennett claimed OU students started a riot after she showed up, which the Ohio University Police Department denied.
In response to the protest she declared that what was supposed to be a “trivia” video would instead vilify the protesters and her political opponents. The next day Bennett posted a nearly 40-minute montage to YouTube titled “Leftists Riot Against Kaitlin Bennett at Ohio University,” which has amassed nearly 1.5 million views.
That same day she vowed on Twitter to return to OU with "an army of gun owners for an open carry walk through campus." InfoWars founder and far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who Bennett worked for in the past, encouraged her on his show to return to Athens in the near future, saying he would join her. To date, she hasn’t made good on the promise.
News of her visit to Athens made it all the way up to national outlets like The Washington Post and CNN. It even got primetime coverage on Fox News’ Fox and Friends where Bennett asked President Donald Trump, a then-frequent viewer of the show, to take note of the protest and insinuated that he should pull federal funding from the school.
Her visit coincided with the first day in 2020 that prospective students toured campus with their parents. In the days following the spectacle, OU’s Facebook page was flooded with comments that criticized the university and student response to Bennett’s appearance in town. University offices, including Undergraduate Admissions, were also met with calls and emails from angry parents and critics.
The university maintained throughout that it didn’t stifle Bennett’s visit to campus and reiterated its commitment to “fostering an atmosphere that allows the free and peaceful exchange of diverse thoughts and ideas.”
3. Schools shutter as it became clear pandemic would upend life
March was a historic month in what is a historic year, seeing closure upon closure in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ohio University and the county’s public K-12 schools closed in March, and students and staff quickly transitioned to remote learning.
Ohio University announced on March 12 that it would join several other Ohio colleges in suspending in-person instruction in classes. OU then said its suspension would last until March 30, but as initial cases grew in the state, the university ultimately announced the extension of its in-personclass suspension and online/remote-only instruction model through the rest of the spring semester.
The university voiced plans over the summer to proceed in-person in the fall, but reversed course as cases increased locally and statewide. Most OU students began their semester online, and select students attended campus in-person, with all students returning to remote learning in late November.
The county’s schools made similar transitions to remote learning, adapting all of their functions to meet the needs of students as they studied from home. Athens City School District, Trimble Local School District, Nelsonville-York City Schools, Alexander Local Schools and Federal Hocking Local Schools delivered the typical breakfast and lunch that students receive when they attended their buildings or created food pick-up checkpoints for families in their district. The districts also dispersed packets of learning materials for their students to work on from home.
A concern all district leaders previously voiced to The Athens NEWS previously was the obstacle of limited Internet access: districts were able to provide WiFi hotspots to some families in their districts, but others were located in areas where Internet access wasn’t available.
As fall semester began, students either learned remotely or made the return to their buildings in hybrid modalities. All districts had confirmed cases of the virus among students and staff this school year.
Ohio University announced in October that all first and second year students will be given the option to live on-campus for the upcoming spring semester. The county’s school districts will mostly be operating remotely for the beginning of spring semester with the hope of returning in-person in some capacity later on in the school year.
4. Businesses fight for survival amid pandemic
Many local Athens businesses struggle to remain open in a normal year when the vast majority of the city’s population leave when Ohio University isn’t in session. Some on Court Street in 2019 were forced to shutter following a long and dry summer, including Franco’s Pizza Place and Follett’s University Bookstore — a longtime fixture of Uptown.
But 2020 brought an entirely new set of uphill battles for local businesses that has left many in dire financial straits — even during seasons when most would have otherwise thrived. In March, when Gov. Mike DeWine and The Ohio Department of Health mandated the closure of indoor dining in Ohio restaurants and bars, area eateries had to either close down, seriously reduce staffing sizes, or rapidly adjust their business models.
To name just a few, Tony’s Tavern, The Pigskin and The Union all had to outright close their doors at the time. To date, only The Union remains closed and is expected to reopen sometime in 2021.
Athens County’s movie theaters were also all required to close under a state order, as did the local bowling alley at Rollerbowl Lanes. Despite it all, the Athena Cinema on Court Street bared a hopeful message on its marquee: “Stay Healthy Athens, See You Soon.”
Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery, said at the time that he had to lay off 66 employees and reduce hours at the business’ two uptown locations and its Campbell Street taproom. Jackie O’s for a period remained closed, but has since reopened its doors for both indoor and outdoor dining.
Many local businesses charted a similar trajectory throughout the year: cuts and closures followed by an eventual full or partial reopening. But even after reopening, many struggled to attract anywhere close to the business they have in years past.
After all, swaths of students were absent for much of the year and lucrative weekends tied to university or city events like homecoming, fest season and Halloween were all either cancelled or held virtually.
When the state lifted the order that closed restaurants and bars, many owners grew worried about how to maintain the safety of both their employees and customers while the threat of the virus lingered. Multiple Athens workers in the service industry said at the time they were anxious about returning to work, but most had bills to pay and rent to make, leaving them with little choice.
Bars and restaurants reopened in May when the weather was warm, allowing many to offer outdoor dining and drinking options for their customers. But that didn’t stop several bars from being cited and fined by the state for violating public health orders and creating an unsafe environment through the summer and fall.
In July, many businesses were forced to close after an employee tested positive for the virus, and many began requiring customers to wear masks long before the city or state implemented such a measure.
The situation seemed to stabilize in the fall and into the winter as businesses adapted and learned to cope with the circumstances, but many could remain devastated well into the future.
5. University layoffs begin, dire outlook follows
Hundreds of Ohio University employees lost their jobs this year as the institution grappled with a budget deficit that has only been exacerbated by the economic ramifications of the pandemic.
The university’s financial troubles stem, in part, from a declining enrollment that has fallen further because of the pandemic. To make matters worse, OU expects to incur nearly $300 million in losses in the coming years, even after the layoffs.
Most of those who didn’t lose their jobs at the university were required to take furlough days, and top administrators forfeited their large year-end bonuses and took salary reductions.
May brought the first waves of layoffs where 140 employees, all members of the AFSCME Local 1699 union, were issued notices of their termination. Those employees – workers such as custodians, culinary and maintenance staff – officially had their positions eliminated May 31.
The union workers took to the streets in subsequent weeks in protest of the layoffs, carrying signs that bared phrases like “Once Essential Now Expendable” and “I wear MASK to protect me from COVID-19 BUT it didn’t protect me from Covid-Nellis & Covid-Shafer.”
Many at the protests expressed a great sense of anger at administrative salaries and at many taking what they called exorbitant bonuses.
Later in May, more than 200 faculty members and administrators were notified that their contracts wouldn’t be renewed, though many administrators were later rehired into the same position at reduced pay or were placed in another position.
Several university departments were gutted as a result. Steep cuts were made to the College of Arts and Sciences’ Linguistics Department, namely the English Language Improvement Program (ELIP) and the Ohio Program of Intensive English (OPIE).
The College of Arts and Sciences also lost faculty in the English, Philosophy, Physics & Astronomy, and Sociology & Anthropology Departments. The College of Business lost five faculty members. And The Chillicothe, Eastern, Southern, Lancaster and Zanesville regional campuses each lost a handful of faculty across numerous academic departments.
The cuts likely resulted in many millions of dollars in savings for the institution.
In June, 81 more jobs were eliminated — 63 clerical classified employees, 17 administrators and one hourly researcher all were notified of their termination.
The university, single largest employer in the region, also made a concerted effort to offer early retirement incentives. At least 88 employees, many of whom were faculty members, accepted early retirement deals.
6. Nationwide racial reckoning reaches Athens
Athens City Council voiced this summer that it has no plans to discontinue funding for the Athens Police Department, a statement coming after more than a month of widespread protests across the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which calls for police departments to be defunded, among other demands.
Councilmember Beth Clodfelter previously pointed to measures already being taken by APD, which includes implicit bias training and crisis intervention training; a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints; and a full-time social worker, as well as a former psychologist, who serves as an officer on staff. In a July interview with The NEWS, APD Chief Tom Pyle added that he believes the department’s culture of community outreach and service, as well as its hiring practices, sets it apart from other larger police departments.
Area activists Andrea Reany and Damon Krane, however, voiced they would still rather see funds taken from APD and reallocated toward other safety measures, such as increasing low income individuals’ access to physical and mental healthcare, creating bystander intervention training and putting together teams of city employees who are unarmed (conflict interventionists).
The NEWS asked city leaders for their input about police defunding following City Council’s passage of a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. The resolution called for multiple actions from the City of Athens: the creation of a work group to promote racial equity community engagement, the implementation of racial equity training for elected officials and the commitment of city officials to reviewing the Athens City Code “under a lens of racial equity.”
Councilmember Sarah Grace, who introduced the resolution in June, also noted that the resolution will focus on conducting human resource actions under the same lens of racial equity, having impacts on internal policies and practices like hiring, promotion and funding.
This summer also saw multiple demonstrations Uptown in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a “Defend the Police” rally that was met with a counter-protest
More recently, a group of activists, Krane included, created a group called Athens County Copwatch, which has tasked itself with “policing the police” urged City Council not to renew police union contracts until the completion of its racial equity review. Council approved the contracts in a December council meeting.
7. Top OU admin quietly accepts big-dollar bonus; university expands transparency efforts following NEWS investigation
Following a fairly lengthy investigation, The Athens NEWS broke the story in September of Ohio University Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Deborah Shaffer quietly accepting a $100,000 retention bonus this past summer, just after hundreds of employees were terminated and thousands more were given mandatory furlough days in a university effort to cut back on expenses.
Shaffer, who has worked in her current role since 2016, is widely considered to be at the forefront of restructuring the university’s finances in the face of enormous fiscal troubles and who has played a central role in authorizing university layoffs.
The NEWS was tipped off to the bonus and subsequently filed several public records requests to verify sources’ information. Once her contract was obtained, it was learned that the bonus was officially authorized to Shaffer, one of highest paid employees at the university, in March 2017 by OU’s Interim President David Descutner and was paid out in July 2020. Her contract was also amended in 2019 to stipulate that she would receive a second $100,000 retention bonus on the condition that she remain in her role until at least June 2023. That bonus was authorized by OU President Duane Nellis.
After learning of Shaffer’s bonus, The NEWS placed more public records requests for other administrators' contracts. The records request was fulfilled the same day that the university — seemingly in direct response to The NEWS’ reporting — released a webpage dedicated to the transparency of executive compensation and salaries. Outlined are the annual bonuses, retention bonuses and other allowances for most top university administrators alongside a lengthy explanation for how compensation is determined. (Nico Karagosian, vice president for university advancement and president and CEO of The Ohio University Foundation, is up for a $95,000 retention bonus in June 2022 on the condition that he remains in his role, according to his contract.)
News of the bonus prompted a firestorm of social media backlash aimed at the university administration, much of it from aggrieved faculty members after hundreds of employees lost their jobs partially at the hands of Shaffer as the institution continued to grapple with significant financial troubles. The story was even picked up by Inside Higher Ed, a national news organization that exclusively covers higher education.
It also set the stage for a high-profile duel between the OU administration and Descutner after both took issue with one another's telling of how Shaffer came to be awarded such an extraordinary bonus.
Descutner published a pointed letter to the editor where he offered criticism of the administration’s communication with The NEWS concerning the circumstances surrounding the bonus. He also denounced the university higher-ups' decision to award Shaffer the July 2020 bonus, despite the fact that he agreed to the deal when signing her contract. He alleged that he did not review the document before his signature was electronically affixed to it.
He said that two Trustees (he doesn’t specify who) approached him at a spring 2017 meeting saying they planned to offer Shaffer the bonus. The former interim president alleged that he was guided by members of the board under the impression that they had supreme authority over administrative bonuses. He said that he did not question what he called “their decision” to grant Shaffer the bonus.
Descutner, at the time of the 2017 meeting, had just returned to the institution, coming out of retirement to serve as interim president under appointment by the Board of Trustees. He had only been interim president a few months.
Nellis and Janelle Coleman, chair of the Board of Trustees, released a statement hours after Descutner’s letter was published reaffirming their support of the retention bonus awarded to Shaffer in July.
They said that Shaffer’s contract was drafted at the time by the OU Office of Legal Affairs at direction of the Board of Trustees and sent via email to Descutner for review and approval. Descutner’s office reportedly returned the contract signed.
According to their telling of events, The former Chair of the Board of Trustees David Wolfort approached Shaffer in 2017 with the bonus offer on the condition that she remain in her role until June 2020, the end of the university’s fiscal year.
They said that Wolfort made the offer in an attempt to ensure “stability in fiscal management of the University,” and that he discussed the deal with the Board of Trustees and then-President Elect Nellis.
Carly Leatherwood, a university spokesperson, said the July 2020 bonus was awarded at “direction” of the OU Board of Trustees, which Shaffer serves on as treasurer and chief financial officer. When making decisions about compensation, including bonuses, OU takes into account an employee’s experience, market data specific to higher education, market influences, performance factors and position criticality, Leatherwood said
While Nellis publicly claimed credit for offering and approving the second retention bonus in 2019, it’s not exactly clear who was behind the big-dollar reward she accepted in July since both the university administration and Descutner have given conflicting accounts of events that transpired behind closed doors.
It’s likely that the Board of Trustees discussed the bonus in closed-door executive sessions in early 2017, but since those sessions aren’t public record, it’s not clear who participated. Meeting minutes documents from the time only specify that the board in executive session considered “the employment or compensation of a public employee.”
8. Edwards’ murky ties to sweeping HB6 scandal
State politics in 2020 were defined by arrest of former Speaker of The Ohio House of Representatives Rep. Larry Householder (R-Glenford), the former boss and a personal friend of Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville), and the political fallout that ensued.
After months of primarily fielding reporter questions on the scandal through text messages, Edwards sat down with both The Athens NEWS and The Athens Messenger in October for a rare in-person interview where he provided the most extensive public account to date at the time of his thoughts on what’s been dubbed by federal investigators as the largest public corruption scandal in state history.
Edwards, who initially said in a statement that the July arrest Householder came as a “complete surprise,” said in that interview that he first got word of the former speaker’s arrest through a 6 a.m. phone call from Jonathon L. McGee, the House’s chief of staff and majority legal counsel, who instructed Edwards to put on a suit and get to Columbus the morning the FBI disclosed findings of an ongoing probe into Householder’s alleged central involvement in what’s been described as a $60 million racketeering scheme to pass nuclear bailout legislation, or House Bill 6, and knock down the ballot initiative efforts that aimed to squash the law.
Edwards, who served as House majority whip on Householder’s leadership team, said he, McGee and those close to them were learning of the allegations levied against Householder by the federal government as the media reported them. Beyond that, he said, they were in the dark.
News of Householder’s arrest, along with his four accomplices, including mainstays in state politics such as former state GOP leader Matt Borges and lobbyist Neil Clark, and the many developments that followed roiled the chamber, dominated the state’s public affairs news cycle and prompted Gov. Mike DeWine and experts to say it tarnished public confidence in House Bill 6, the legislation at the center of the scheme that the FBI alleged was passed with the help of bribes from First Energy, and state government at large.
Edwards said he’s worked in the past with all of the men who were indicted in connection to the FBI’s investigation and that he even knew some of them personally. But the state representative maintained that he was wholly unaware of their alleged criminal connections described in the federal affidavit filed against them.
Despite regular contact with Householder, his staff and other Statehouse aides in-the-know, Edwards during the interview again denied any prior knowledge of Householder’s alleged scheme to take tens of millions of dollars from First Energy to influence legislation that ultimately bailed out two Ohio nuclear plants and his associates’ efforts to defeat a ballot initiative that aimed to foil his plans.
While Edwards’ name doesn’t explicitly appear in any of the documents linked to the scandal, The federal affidavit filed against Householder and his associates, collectively referred to as “The Enterprise,” describes their successful attempts to help elect members who would comprise “Team Householder.” Those on the team were either wittingly or unwittingly instrumental in the enterprise’s alleged scheme to pass House Bill 6.
Federal investigators uncovered a document from enterprise member Jeff Longstreth — Householder’s longtime political strategist — that describes a proposed list of individuals to comprise Householder’s leadership team should he win the speakership in 2019.
Those on that list include “Speaker of The House, Speaker Pro Tempore, Majority Floor Leader, Assistant Majority Leader, Majority Whip, and Assistant Majority Whip,” according to the FBI’s affidavit. “After Householder was elected speaker in 2019 all of the individuals, except for one, became part of Householder’s leadership team. (The exception was a representative who did not support Householder for Speaker).”
According to House voting records, Edwards both supported Householder for speaker and voted to pass House Bill 6.
Edwards said that Householder never approached him to discuss a potential leadership team prior to his election as House speaker. He said it was never clear to him prior to the election that Householder may have wanted to select him for a potential leadership team should he win the speakership.
After Householder became speaker, he said, they met in the speaker’s office where Householder personally asked Edwards which leadership position he would like. Edwards asked to be selected for one of the top two positions in the chamber, but Householder told him he was too young for those high-ranking jobs.
As the October interview wore on, Edwards seemed to become irritated talking about the scandal, as he believed it has little to do with his campaign or re-election bid, despite the fact that it, in part, has tarnished in the eyes of many the reputation of a chamber that he helped run.
In August, the newly elected House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima), who replaced Householder, called on Edwards and other members of the Householder-appointed Republican leadership team to resign from their positions in an effort to “clearly demonstrate our resolve to start anew,” as the caucus struggled to earn back confidence following the arrest and indictment of Householder, who still holds office despite being ousted as speaker.
Edwards denied the speaker’s request, saying that he saw no reason to step down from his role as majority whip since he was elected to the position unanimously. Elections for House leadership are often just a formality since the speaker effectively selects behind closed doors who they wish to lead the caucus beside them. Floor votes on leadership nearly always end in unanimous approval among both parties.
Cupp at the time also removed Edwards and the rest of the former leadership team from the authoritative Rules and Reference Committee, which sets the House agenda. Householder appointed Edwards to that committee in 2019.
Edwards, who voted to remove Householder as speaker in July but didn’t support opening the floor for debate on expelling him from the body, said despite everything he’s still friendly with the former speaker.
About a week after The NEWS’ interview with Edwards, Cleveland.com managed to secure a blockbuster interview with Clark, a longtime Columbus lobbyist and indicted Householder associate, who identified Edwards as an attendee of a dinner — outlined in the FBI affidavit — where they discussed in a rather vulgar manner their efforts to defeat the House Bill 6 ballot initiative campaign.
The affidavit references an Ohio House member identified only as “Representative 8,” who the FBI said is not known to be a member of the alleged criminal enterprise. Edwards said that he doesn’t recall attending the meeting, but he never explicitly denied that it occurred.
“I just don’t have it on my calendar. I went to a lot of dinners. I went to a lot of different things, so, you know, that’s not to say it didn’t happen, that’s not to say that it did,” Edwards told The NEWS at the time.
Edwards wouldn’t say whether he believed he was “Representative 8,” as outlined within the affidavit.
One of the other men at that dinner who was said to be Clark’s client, known to him as Brian Bennett, claimed to be a Cincinnati hotel developer who wanted help ensuring that a sports-betting bill, which Edwards co-sponsored, would include provisions to allow for a betting window within their hotel, according to Cleveland.com. Another man present at the meeting was known to Clark only as “Vinnie,” and was said to be from Bennett’s company’s Rhode Island office. Sports gambling was reportedly not discussed at the dinner.
It later became understood that the FBI used agents who posed as business developers in a string of public corruption investigations after Cincinnati City Councilmember Jeff Pastor was arrested in November on corruption charges after allegedly taking bribes from men who claimed to be developers.
Pastor’s arrest is not thought to be connected to that of Householder, Clark and their other accomplices — two of whom, lobbyist Juan Cespedes and Longstreth, have pleaded guilty to the racketeering charges levied against them by the FBI.
Clark, who still pleads not guilty to the charges, believed the men at the dinner were with the FBI. He said he met with them on a few occasions in both Cincinnati and Nashville.
Edwards said that he vaguely recollected at some point in recent years interacting with people who match the description of the hotel developers Clark described, suggesting he came into contact with the FBI agents who investigated Householder’s alleged enterprise. Though he said that he met with numerous people in connection to the sports-betting bill, Edwards recalled thinking it was unusual that men who developed boutique hotels were interested in sports gambling.
In November, Edwards said he did not run for re-election as majority whip, one of the most powerful in the chamber, in the upcoming General Assembly.
Edwards, a popular incumbent who had at the time recently won re-election to the House in a landslide, initially did not provide any further explanation as to why he didn’t run following multiple requests for comment made across several days. He replied days later, saying he felt the leadership job limited him in his legislative duties by not allowing him to sponsor legislation — despite the position coming with a pay raise and statewide clout in politics.
A spokesperson for Cupp’s office said in an email that it was customary in the 133 General Assembly for members of leadership to not introduce bills. Edwards hasn’t been a primary sponsor of any legislation since February 2019, shortly after he was appointed majority whip.
The House voted that month to re-elect Cupp as speaker and selected an almost entirely new Republican leadership team. The only holdover was Majority Floor Leader Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Green Township), who reportedly considered challenging Cupp for the speakership but never followed through.
Cupp’s office at the time declined to comment directly on Edwards no longer being part of House leadership.
Edwards can expect his paychecks from the House to shrink by about $12,000 this year since he will no longer be part of the Republican leadership team. He will earn about $67,500 in 2021 — the base rate salary of a rank-and-file member, down from the nearly $78,000 he made by the end of 2020, according to 2018 legislation that amended the pay scales for numerous state officials. Though his pay could still increase if he were to chair a committee or subcommittee or become a ranking member.
9. A Halloween unlike any other
Athens dressed as a ghost town for Halloween, as the block party was officially “canceled” last year in response to the pandemic. Athens Police Department Captain Ralph Harvey told The NEWS that APD lieutenants reported the holiday being comparatively slower than the average fall weekend.
Athens City Council effectively canceled the year’s block party, opting not to pass an ordinance to close down Court Street for the Halloween weekend as it does every year (although, the lack of an ordinance passage hasn’t stopped Halloween festivities on Court Street in the past).
Throughout The NEWS’ Facebook comments, Athens residents voiced concern over the potential of an influx of people coming into town amid a pandemic, while others encouraged students to hold parties. However, major Athens hotels voiced to The NEWS that they expected to have dozens of rooms vacant over the holiday weekend, signaling that fewer people may have traveled to Athens for Halloween festivities than in years past.
Ohio University in 2020 implemented several restrictions for its students in regard to Halloween weekend. OU students couldn’t host gatherings larger than 10 people and were required under city law to wear masks when in public spaces, such as while walking on Court Street.
They were also expected to stand six feet apart and continue wearing their facemasks when waiting in line to enter a local business, including bars. Students found in violation of public health orders face fines of $100; a fine of $150 will be issued to party-goers that “do not comply with public safety protocol.”
Students residing on campus were also not permitted to have guests stay with them during Halloween weekend and parking wasn’t permitted on campus.
During Halloween weekend, APD received several noise and public health complaints, but none were ever found in violation of the law upon police arrival, Harvey said.
APD did not use horses to patrol the streets this year, and the number of cars parked Uptown and at the fairgrounds were reportedly down (in addition to university parking lots being empty).
Not all Halloween traditions in Athens were scrapped this year, however: the annual Honey for the Heart parade that typically marches down Court Street instead stood in place at the West State Street Park, allowing for attendees to admire the spectacle from their cars.
10. An election irregularity hits home
Despite many Republicans’ wholly unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, it became clear in the days following the historic 2020 election that there may have been a legitimate irregularity at an Athens County polling location.
The Athens County Board of Elections initiated an investigation on election night after Democratic candidate Katie O’Neill, who ran for the 94th District seat in the Ohio House of Representatives, alleged in a Facebook post that neon orange signs were posted in voting booths at the Alexander Wellness Center polling location that falsely notified voters that any ballots cast for her would not be counted in what amounted to what she called “election fraud.”
Board of Elections Director Debbie Quivey maintained in the days that followed nothing illegal transpired at the Alexander polling location, speaking only in vague terms as she toiled away on the investigation.
Incumbent Republican Jay Edwards, who won the election, did not respond to The NEWS’ request for comment, though he posted several comments to Facebook concerning the allegations, saying that regardless of what happened at the Alexander polls he still had enough votes to win the race.
The following week, Quivey called a public meeting where she shared findings of her investigation, which confirmed signs incorrectly warning voters that ballots cast for O’Neill were posted in voting booths at the Alexander location for several hours before being discarded.
Quivey’s investigation corroborated through dozens of affidavits signed by poll workers and voting location managers that the episode in Alexander was an isolated incident of human error that wasn’t replicated at any other polling locations across the county.
The signs were found to be remnants from before the primary where O’Neill was thought to be ineligible to run before the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that she was permitted to receive votes.
Four were removed around 9 a.m., more than two hours after the polls opened, after an election official noticed them, according to a handwritten affidavit signed by nearly 20 poll workers in Alexander. The remaining sign wasn’t removed until around 2 p.m. when a voter questioned an official about it.
Nearly 900 voters cast ballots in Alexander before 2 p.m., but not all of them saw the signs since most were removed earlier in the morning. She determined through her investigation that the misplaced signs couldn’t have possibly swung the results of the election, which O’Neill lost in a more than 20-point landslide.
To make matters worse, O’Neill was livid after not being notified by county leaders about the public meeting where Quivey discussed the findings of her investigation. She said she didn’t learn of the event until after the fact when asked for comment by media. O’Neill was also furious she was not provided with a copy of the investigation, a public record, before news organizations were.
Quivey said Board of Elections protocol only required her to contact news media about the event. She also invited a select few officials, like Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn, who had been integral to the investigation process.
Blackburn said that O’Neill’s attorney, Louis Grube, warned they’re considering pursuing litigation against the Board of Elections, something the prosecutor indicated the county tried to avoid by fulfilling Grube’s public records requests and truthfully answering all of his questions on behalf of O’Neill.
A spokesperson confirmed that Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office had been “made aware” of what happened at the Alexander location. LaRose’s Chief Legal Counsel D. Michael Grodhaus told Quivey the matter was a local issue and thus should be handled by the county Board of Elections rather than the state.
The Board of Elections sent O’Neill a formal apology for the incident in an attempt to compensate for the damage done to her campaign. The apology letter, which incorrectly stated the name of the seat O’Neill ran for, arrived in her email inbox days after Quivey detailed her investigation.
O’Neill and The Board of Elections had maintained a fraught relationship practically since she moved to the region in recent years in hopes of unseating incumbent Republican Rep. Jay Edwards in the 94th Ohio House District.
She was originally disqualified from the ballot in February when the Board of Elections voted to remove her after a Nelsonville resident filed a protest alleging that she wasn’t a resident of the House district for at least a year prior to the general election.
In response, O’Neill filed a lawsuit weeks before the originally scheduled March 17 date of Ohio’s primary election against the Board of Elections in the Supreme Court of Ohio, challenging the board’s decision to remove her from the ballot.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in April that O’Neill was improperly kept off the ballot, writing in its majority opinion that the Board of Elections “abused its discretion” and in some cases “clearly disregarded applicable law” by rejecting her petition to run for office.
In December, O’Neill again threatened to pursue litigation against the Athens County Board of Elections in response to the Election Day incident, though she gave no timetable for when a suit may be filed and has been quiet on the matter ever since.
She indicated she felt uncomfortable pursuing litigation while President Donald Trump and his Republican colleagues brazenly attempted (and are still trying, albeit with little success) to overturn the results of the election in court.
11. TikTok star sees new opportunity after loss of Athens job
2020 saw the beginning and cheerful end to the story of an Athens-area TikTok star.
Ohio University senior Tony Piloseno, who’s famous for his paint-mixing videos as tonesterpaints on TikTok, lost his job this past summer at the East State Street Sherwin-Williams store after the company received customer complaints related to his videos and discovered he created content while on the clock using company machinery.
Piloseno began creating paint-mixing videos about a year ago while working at the East State Street Sherwin-Williams location, where one of his job duties was to mix paint colors for customers to help find the exact shade they were in search of. He grew inspired by other companies that he saw mixing paint in their own TikTok videos, and he began employing techniques that he learned on the job into his own creations.
Piloseno’s success revealed what he saw as an opportunity to help Sherwin-Williams, the Cleveland-based paint giant, market its products to the younger audiences found on TikTok. With the guidance of some OU business professors he created a presentation that he shared with a store manager and sales representative who were both supportive and helped him contact the company’s corporate marketing department.
After months of silence, corporate responded to his inquiries saying they weren’t interested in expanding marketing efforts amid the pandemic. He reportedly was fired shortly after.
Piloseno received an outpouring of public support following what many believed to be a mistake on the part of Sherwin-Williams for firing him, since he offered to expand the company's marketing efforts with the help of his substantial online clout.
Piloseno later revealed that he accepted a job at a small Orlando, Florida-based paint company days after going public about his termination from Sherwin-Williams in a viral video. He took a position with Florida Paints working sales and operations at a few of their locations, similar to the work he did at Sherwin-Williams in Athens.
The company also agreed to invest in his personal influencer brand and create his own products or paint line, Piloseno said in an interview.
Florida Paints owner Don Strube reached out to Piloseno on LinkedIn after the TikTok video about Piloseno’s termination went viral. Piloseno ultimately flew out to Florida to learn more about Strube’s company and later accepted the job offer.
Piloseno told The NEWS he planned to move to Florida and finish his business degree online.
12. COVID-19 vaccines come to Athens County
OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital administered the first doses of the COVID-19 in December in Athens to frontline health care workers, marking the beginning of the end to a pandemic that has infected more than 3,000 county residents and killed nine.
Rachel Cooper, a nurse at O’Bleness and a Hocking College graduate, was the first health care worker to be vaccinated in Athens.
The hospital, one of 10 in Ohio that previously agreed to be a vaccine site, offered its first shipment of Pfizer’s vaccine to employees who work in environments that present the highest risk of infection, including the Intensive Care Unit, Emergency Department, Urgent Care and respiratory care.
OhioHealth received its first shipment of vaccine Dec. 15, and nearly 2,000 doses were distributed between Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus and O’Bleness.
The Pfizer vaccine was granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration in December and has been shown to be more than 95 percent effective in preventing severe COVID-19-related illness in patients. The other major vaccine, created by Moderna, also received emergency authorization and was shown to be more than 94 percent effective.
The Athens City-County Health Department on Dec. 21 began administering COVID-19 vaccines to EMS workers and select congregate care facilities at a point of dispensing clinic (POD) located at the Athens Community Center.
The health department received 600 total doses of the Moderna vaccine, 190 of which were immediately given to Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare, a psychiatric hospital for mentally ill adults in southeast Ohio.
Local health departments are primarily tasked by the state with vaccinating EMS responders and health care workers who aren’t necessarily on the frontline, including dentists and hospice workers. Athens County EMS employs 66 people who are all eligible to receive the vaccine.
The health department is also responsible for inoculating residents and staff of long-term care facilities that aren’t enrolled in the federal government’s plan to vaccinate them though private pharmacies, which both began immunizations on Monday all across the country, including in Athens County.
Pepper said that he expects the department to hold dozens more POC clinics, but can’t say for sure when they might be because of the short vaccine supply.