Top 10 local news stories of 2021

The Mainstreet Daily News staff has compiled what it sees as the top 10 local stories in a very busy news year in North Central Florida. There were a number of spot news stories that stuck with us, such as the vandals who took a train for a joy ride, the UF vet college retrieving a shoe from a croc's gut, and the Colorado family who won a treasure hunt for a candy factory in Hawthorne. 

But we zeroed in on impact. Which stories shaped the community and affected the most people?

No single article incapsulates the stories below, so we've linked to several pieces in each paragraph. Each story unfolded over weeks or months, encompassing multiple reports—sometimes tallying in the double digits. And some stories are still ongoing. 

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You may disagree with some of our selections, but that's OK. Feel free to tell us in the comments or on social media what you would have chosen. 

As we see it, here are the top 10 local news stories of the year: 

1. Mask wars

No local entity had a more eventful year than Alachua County Public Schools and the school board. Amid a then-receding pandemic, the school board announced in April that masks would be optional in the 2021 school year, but then it reversed course in August during the delta variant surge.

That decision touched off enforcement action by the state, a legal battle, and federal intervention that put the district in the national spotlight. 

2. Delta variant surge

The year began with mass vaccination efforts geared toward the sick and aging, then progressively aimed at younger and younger age groups. Come spring, life appeared to be returning to normal, but in July the delta variant hit Florida with a vengeance, filling up area hospitals and prompting Alachua County to declare another state of emergency

3. ACPS bomb threats

On Aug. 19 a Buchholz High School student turned in a bomb threat that cleared the school and sent students home a little early. What seemed like an isolated incident turned into a wave of at least 19 hoaxes at seven schools over a two-month period. Several law enforcement agencies combined to arrest 10 students in a saga that rattled students, frustrated administrators and drained law enforcement resources.  

4. Summer of violence

A wave of shootings hit Gainesville in June and July, killing at least two and injuring a dozen, including a 12-year-old. In response, law enforcement leaders called on local citizens to turn in those responsible and held multiple gun buyback events, a "stop the violence" flag football game, and a backpack giveaway and rally. 

5. City of Gainesville turmoil

Gainesville City Hall absorbed numerous shocks in 2021, starting in May with the resignation of Teneeshia Marshall, the city's director of equity and inclusion. Commissioner Gail Johnson announced her resignation in August, and both the city attorney and the city clerk soon followed―although City Clerk Omichele Gainey later withdrew her resignation. The following week, City Manager Lee Feldman resigned, and Ed Bielarski, GRU’s general manager, nearly lost his position as well.

Heading into 2022, Gainesville has an interim city manager and city attorney, and voters will select a replacement for Johnson on Jan. 25. 

6. West University safety

The deaths of two UF students in separate accidents on West University Avenue sparked public outcry for improved safety on roads near campus. Local law enforcement stepped up patrols, while the city and the Florida Department of Transportation made changes to West University, including: retiming traffic signals, installing higher visibility crosswalks, lowering the speed limit, adding traffic tables and changing how roads feed into West University.

The city also hired a consulting firm that examined longer-term ways to alter the heavily traveled corridor. Additional deaths and serious accidents on the road have continued to keep this issue a top priority.

7. Diyonne McGraw residency issue

In June locals began circulating a petition calling for Alachua County School Board member Diyonne McGraw to resign because she did not live in the district she was elected to represent. Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton publicly confirmed McGraw's residency problem, leading to lawsuits, heated school board meetings, and Gov. Ron DeSantis declaring the seat vacant.

DeSantis appointed Mildred Russell to the school board, and McGraw is currently suing the governor and her former opponent over the matter. 

8. City of Gainesville vaccine mandate

Amid a stalled vaccination rate and the delta variant surge, the Gainesville City Commission narrowly voted in August to require city employees to get vaccinated. Later that month, employees rallied at Gainesville City Hall against the mandate as more than 200 employees joined a lawsuit, which drew a visit from Gov. Ron DeSantis and a legal brief of support from Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody.

An Alachua County judge later blocked the mandate, prompting the city to back down

9. UF named top 5 public university

UF also drew a visit from the governor in September, after U.S. News & World Report named it one of the top five public universities in the country. The announcement capped a four-year ascent from No. 14, but was quickly followed by a national controversy, when three UF professors sued the school for blocking them from testifying against the state in a voting rights case. UF reversed the decision and said the state did not apply pressure, but the school's accrediting body is investigating.  

10. Pushback to turnpike extension

A plan to extend Florida's Turnpike through Levy County met with stiff opposition from residents who say the extension would ruin their rural way of life. Last week the Levy County Board of County Commissioners asked DeSantis to intervene, but so far no area lawmakers have voiced opposition to the project. 

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