A hometown newspaper with a local office, local owners & lots of local news

A look back on the year that was

As 2022 came to a close, Rep. Mike Sundin left the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul one last time on Wednesday. But not before the Esko Democrat cleared out his office after 10 years as a representative for District 11A.

"I'm going back to help Mary Murphy pack up, and that's going to be tough," Sundin said of his fellow DFL lawmaker and longtime friend. "I'll be helping her vacate an office she's held for 46 years. But it's a changing of the guard."

It's been that kind of year throughout Carlton County: a year of change.

Whether it's change in the makeup of the contentious school board at Wrenshall, or for the legal system in Carlton County; change in the way Fond du Lac Band advocates for itself, or county residents' approach to the Covid-19 pandemic; change in how agencies deal with pollution in the St. Louis River, or even in the weather, which dropped a historic storm onto doorsteps, driveways, roadways, trees and powerlines earlier this month.

To commemorate the year of change, the newspaper collected its top stories and also spoke with Sundin about what's to come in 2023.

While Murphy lost a recount vote to Hermantown Republican Natalie Zeleznikar, Sundin made the conscious decision to announce his retirement as a politician before the November election.

Now Jeff Dotseth, a Republican from Kettle River, will represent District 11A after winning election to the seat on his third try. When he dropped into the Pine Knot News office in mid-December, he expressed his eagerness to learn how things work in St. Paul while keeping in close contact with constituents here in Carlton County.

For Sundin, it was time to say goodbye.

"I wanted to leave on my own terms and have whoever else step forward," Sundin said.

Looking ahead to state politics in 2023, Sundin hoped legislators in the DFL-controlled House, Senate and governor's office would make wise choices with the state's $17.6 billion surplus. He cautioned against targeting it all for taxpayer reimbursement, citing the former Gov. Jesse Ventura rebates, "Jesse checks," that seemed to come and go. He'd much rather see investment in the state.

"I'm looking forward to a balanced approach in spending down that $17.6 billion," Sundin said.

He'd like to see investments in education, infrastructure, parks, and property tax relief.

Give some of the money back to taxpayers, he said, but the surplus was owed to increased collections in corporate and sales taxes, along with some from personal income taxes.

"I'm for property tax relief in any form we can get it," Sundin said, citing possibilities of individual property tax rebates or even an increase in local government aid to municipalities so they can lower their levies.

He cautioned against repealing the Social Security tax.

"It's popular to talk about, but so very few people pay much on that," he said. "The neediest among us don't pay any tax or minimal tax."

Of course, those won't be Sundin's calls to make any longer. He'll be another voice in the crowd, fishing more and spending more time with family. He said he's declining to take on a lucrative lobbyist position, and that his days in party leadership are over. But Sundin will remain a policy activist, finding a place to fit in agriculture or labor issues. Raised in farming, the 65-year-old liked working on the House agriculture committee, and he's spent 44 years and counting in the building trades union.

"There are a lot of pet projects with agriculture," he said. "A lot of immigrant farmers really want to participate and are participating, but land access is really tough. They quit making (land)."

Along with saying goodbye to Sundin, what follows are the Pine Knot's other top stories from 2022.

Fond du Lac Band improvements

Not content to be "invisible" people, the Fond du Lac Band experienced a series of high-profile events in 2022. It opened the Tagwii Recovery Center to treat addiction on the reservation, celebrated the arrival of newly restored burial grounds that had been desecrated in 2017 by a state highway project in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth, and reclaimed lands on Wisconsin Point in Superior. Additionally, this month, the Band began issuing license plates to Band members that raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. This came after the legislature failed to approve the plates, which are similar to state license plates raising awareness for conservationist issues. "We don't need state approval," Fond du Lac Chairman Kevin Dupuis said at the introduction of the MMIR license plates. "We can do this ourselves."

Scanlon river project unfolds

In September, the newspaper visited a first-of-its-kind pollution remediation project unfolding on the St. Louis River in Scanlon. The $10.5 million project was led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The project featured dispersal of tiny carbon pellets into the waters to cover and contain sediment first contaminated during the rise of industrialization last century. The revolutionary cleanup process was being watched by insiders worldwide. Expected to be successful, the process is scheduled to be replicated at Minnesota Power's nearby Thomson Dam in 2024. That $40 million project on the 390-acre reservoir will feature 80 acres of contaminated sediment to be covered using the carbon method. That's nearly eight times the size of the Scanlon project. "We want to suppress those (contaminants) at the base of the food chain," said LaRae Lehto of the MPCA.

Wrenshall voters reconfigure school board

In November, after two years of bickering and declining student enrollment, voters in Wrenshall brought in three new board members who promised to get the district back on track. Eric Ankrum, Mary Carlson and Ben Johnson rode into office on a wave of voter discontent. Pulling issues from national headlines, the board had begun making partisan attacks on teachers and calling for the longtime superintendent's resignation. "The people running the district are not doing their jobs," said Dan Gallup, 48, outside of the Silver Brook Township polling center on election day. "Hopefully, they can get it straightened out." The new board will be sworn into office Jan. 4, taking on $300,000 worth of necessary budget cuts in order to right-size a district in crisis.

Superintendent Kim Belcastro added more change by announcing that she would resign early next year.

Wrenshall, Carlton agree to combine activities, including sports

With affirmative votes by Carlton and Wrenshall school boards in October, the two financially struggling districts agreed to combine more sports and other extracurricular activities beginning in spring 2023. Before the votes, the districts' leadership teams hammered out arrangements behind closed doors, and parents and athletes spoke out at school board meetings. In the end, the boards followed the lead of the cooperative football program.

"If we didn't combine programs, we would be dead," Wrenshall athletic director Luke Wargin said, referring to football, which played only a junior varsity season in 2022 as the co-op worked to replenish its roster with hopes of a brighter future together. Some, including outgoing Wrenshall board member Deb Washenesky, believed combining activities would lay the groundwork for future collaboration between the districts.

Construction begins on $66 million law enforcement center

Local dignitaries participated in the groundbreaking ceremony in August for the new $66 million justice center being built in Carlton next to the Transportation Building on County Road 61. It's the largest project in terms of dollars in county history. It'll bring a new 80-bed jail, including a separate female offender program, new courtrooms, new probation offices and new attorneys' quarters to the county, which had been made necessary by outdated facilities and the Minnesota Department of Corrections telling the county it would not authorize the jail to hold people beyond 2023. That stipulation was lifted after the county board's approval of the facility, which is expected to open in summer 2024. "We realize this is an enormous undertaking," Sheriff Kelly Lake said. "We've never built a facility like this. We want to make sure they're right-sizing it, so that it will last the county for many years to come." In order to pay for the facility, county voters approved a half-cent sales tax during the November election. City of Cloquet voters approved an additional half-cent sales tax to pay for improvements to the city's hockey arenas and its Pine Valley recreation area.

Lake reelected, possibly for last time

Sheriff Kelly Lake faced election competition for the first time since 2006 in November's election, coming from Moose Lake police officer Jason Syrett. Lake won reelection handily, convincing voters she was as committed as ever to the job. But four years from now, when she'll have served 21 years as sheriff, was another matter. "I would say I would likely not continue, just considering my age," the 53-year-old Lake said. "But I don't ever want to say 'never.'"

Hoax calls shut down schools

The Cloquet and Esko schools were victims in 2022 of an international hoax which called authorities to report either bomb threats or ongoing violence within the schools. The hoaxes, in March at Esko and in April and September at Cloquet, required school lockdowns and sent waves of panic throughout social media and the communities. Schools throughout the state and country experienced the same fake threats, which authorities later learned were generated overseas. "It's too bad this happened," said one mother, who was picking up her son from St. Paul's across from Cloquet High School. "These kids need to be in school." In the aftermath of the calls, authorities urged parents to remain calm and away from the school facilities during lockdown events. Police and first responders need to be able to reach the school and possible victims, they said, and panic only hampers efforts.

Killer sentenced to three life sentences

Once the jury found him guilty, there was never any doubt that Sheldon Thompson would be sentenced to life in prison for brutally killing his pregnant girlfriend, Jackie Defoe, their unborn child, and Jackie's 20-month-old son, Kevin Lee Shabaiash Jr., in March 2020. How many life sentences he would be sentenced to was the question. The sentencing hearing in June at the Carlton County Courthouse came just over two weeks after a jury found Thompson guilty of eight counts of murder. He subsequently received three consecutive life sentences from Judge Jill Eichenwald. Carlton County attorney Lauri Ketola argued for three life sentences, one after the other, to recognize each victim. "It's true he only has one life, but he took three," Ketola said.

Boy avoids adult court following shooting incident

A 16-year-old Superior boy pleaded guilty in October to second-degree felony assault, after firing 12 shots from a 9mm handgun at a carful of people during a July incident in Pinehurst Park in Cloquet. After psychological evaluations, the boy avoided being certified to adult court for criminal prosecution. Instead, his attorney, Duluth's Kevin Cornwell, and assistant Carlton County attorney Michael Boese announced in October a guilty plea arrangement which figures to put the boy on probation until his 21st birthday.

College president passes away

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College lost one of its strongest supporters in November, when its president, Stephanie Hammitt, passed away of cancer. Hammitt, 60, spent much of her career at the Cloquet college before officially becoming the first female president in January 2020. Her words about straddling community and tribal values resonated following her death: "We have our cultural values written in Ojibwe and English on the hallway floors, to remind us how to go about our daily work," she said. "Traditional always mixes with nontraditional here and I wouldn't have it any other way." In a statement acting president Anita Hanson said: "We are proud of the many important college accomplishments that were achieved under her leadership, and she will be missed tremendously."

Honorable mention top stories

The roundabout at 14th Street and Carlton Avenue was completed in 2022, along with the J-turn on Highway 33 and Frontage Road. ... The city's Fourth of July celebration returned in 2022 to Veterans Park following pandemic-era absences. Although the parade was rained out, a standstill parade the next day was well-received. ... Blackhoof Township residents remained up in arms throughout 2022 following the arrival of a green cemetery along Pioneer Road. While cemetery owners expect to begin burials in wood caskets or shrouds in 2023, residents adjacent to the cemetery continue to seek relief from a county board hesitant to rush in on an issue with no legal recourse. ... The city of Cloquet condemned Hotel Solem on Cloquet Avenue. The former home of Mexico Lindo was one of the first buildings to rise in the city following the 1918 fire. The city received proposals from developers through November with announcements about the three-story building's future expected early in 2023. ... Finally, the pre-Christmas winter blizzard earlier this month will be talked about for ages. It coated Carlton and surrounding counties with a thick coat of snow, collapsing trees and the power grid. Utility workers from across the region spent days restoring power to residents.