Ambassador Huntsman leads Top 10 Utah news stories

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — President Barack Obama’s selection of Jon Huntsman as U.S. ambassador to China was ranked the No. 1 news story in Utah for 2009. The rise of Huntsman from Utah governor to global player was selected the biggest story by a nearly unanimous consensus of Associated Press members and AP reporters in the state. News cooperative voters were equally certain about the second biggest story. It was the Mormon church’s involvement with gay-rights issues in Utah and California. No. 3 was courtroom developments that moved the 2002 abduction of Elizabeth Smart closer to a final resolution. Another prominent story – the baffling disappearance of a Utah woman who left behind two children – developed late in the year, after balloting began. It was not ranked for 2009. Susan Powell was last seen Dec. 7 at her West Valley City home by a husband who was labeled a “person of interest” by police. Authorities haven’t been able to verify or disprove that Josh Powell, as he contends, took his young sons in the middle of the night on a camping trip to Utah’s west desert and returned to find his wife missing. Another story that didn’t finish in the rankings was the recession that continues to hammer the state economy and government budgets. The economic crisis headed Utah AP Top 10 list of important stories a year ago. It continued in 2009, although the pain appeared to be less severe in Utah than in other parts of the country gripped by soaring unemployment and widespread home foreclosures. Here are the top Utah stories of 2009: 1. At first, Republican Jon Huntsman didn’t appear the most likely envoy to China for a new Democratic administration. But Huntsman’s qualifications were widely praised, and his nomination sailed through the U.S. Senate. The confirmation sent to Beijing a fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker with social, government and business ties to the region. It brought to President Barack Obama’s administration a figure who was widely seen as a potential Republican challenger for the presidency in 2012. 2. Few were surprised when the Mormon church threw its weight behind a California ballot proposition that banned gay marriage. But the church’s involvement and conflict in a highly charged political issue grew to dominate the news for much of the year. After a gay couple was arrested for embracing on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square – charges were later thrown out – advocates staged a series of “kiss-ins” at temples around the country. Later, in Utah, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints endorsed a Salt Lake City ordinance that made it illegal to fire people from jobs or evict them from housing because of sexual orientation. City leaders quickly adopted the measure. 3. Elizabeth Smart spoke for the first time about her kidnapping ordeal. The testimony came as competency hearings were renewed for the man charged in her 2002 abduction – Brian David Mitchell – this time in federal court after proceedings ground to a halt in the state courts. U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said he was making it a priority to resolve “one of the kidnapping crimes of the century.” Wanda Barzee, Mitchell’s estranged wife, pleaded guilty in November to federal charges of kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor. Barzee also apologized to the Smart family. 4. In the biggest bust of artifact looting in the Four Corners region, the federal government brought charges against 26 defendants accused of plundering or selling antiquities taken from federal and tribal lands. Two of them – one a Blanding doctor, the other an unemployed Santa Fe, N.M. salesman – committed suicide. 5. Gov. Jon Huntsman and the Utah Legislature normalize the state’s liquor laws by breaking up a 40-year old private club system that made getting inside a bar without a membership an uncertain and difficult experience. 6. Utah Jazz owner and businessman Larry H. Miller, 64, dies of complications from diabetes. A car sales mogul, he built Miller Motorsports Park in 2005 because wanted a venue to bring top-class auto racing to Utah – and give himself a place to tinker with cars at will, then see what they could do when he got behind the wheel on the road course. 7. New Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar reversed the Bush administration’s lease of drilling parcels near some of Utah’s national parks and wild redrock country. Salazar played his hand after many of the parcels had already been tied up by a federal lawsuit. Still, it provoked a lasting political argument with congressional Republicans and trade groups, who argued that the public lands were producing cleaner-burning natural gas. 8. Utah upsets Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, then finished the season with its highest ranking at No. 2 nationally. The Utes were the only unbeaten team in major college football, but they weren’t invited to play for the Bowl Championship Series national title. The controversy prompted a new round of clamor in Congress for BCS changes. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff opened an investigation into whether the BCS violates federal antitrust laws. 9. Ogden police officer Ken Hammond, who was called a hero for intervening in a deadly shooting rampage at a Salt Lake City mall in 2007, spends 62 days in jail and loses his police certification after he pleads no contest in a case involving an allegation that he engaged in a sex act with a teenage girl in 2005. 10. (tie) An irrigation canal gives way on a Logan hillside, sending a torrent of mud into a neighborhood and killing a mother and her two children. 10. Court battles continue over plans by EnergySolutions Inc. to dispose of foreign radioactive waste in Utah, and Congress moves to ban the importation of the waste anywhere in the U.S.

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