What made news in Illawarra in 2012

GALLERY: The year in pictures

GALLERY: The year in cartoons

It was a year of highs and lows for the region. Our reporters look back at 2012.

COURT

It was the shooting that shocked the region.

A brazen, public rain of gunfire outside a popular Wollongong nightclub on September 8, 2007, which left one man dead and a security guard seriously injured.

Nearly five years went by without any arrests in the infamous Splashes nightclub shooting, leaving many to wonder whether anyone would ever be charged over Dragan Sekuljica's death.

As 2012 came to a close, four men remain in custody after being charged over the alleged contract killing, marking a significant breakthrough in the case.

Tarrawanna man Zlatan Popovic was the first to be charged, fronting Wollongong Local Court in September.

The second man was Jason Hristovski, who faces counts of murder and shooting with intent to murder.

The third co-accused, Dalibor Bubanja, 26, was charged in late November while a fourth man, Tevi Kolomatangi, 43, was charged nearly a week later.

All the men are set to reappear in court on January 30. - Emma Spillett

HEALTH

People power delivered a win for the community in June when NSW Health agreed to include a new parking station in the $86 million Wollongong Hospital redevelopment.

Community joy over the hospital expansion, announced last December, quickly gave way to anger when residents learnt the plans did not include a single new parking space.

NSW Health had anticipated an extra 1525 parking spaces would be needed to support increased staff, visitor and patient numbers attending the new operating theatres, a surgical ward and intensive care unit. But the department refused to create the spaces, claiming there was plenty of space on residential streets, up to 15 minutes' walk from the hospital.

The Mercury campaigned to have NSW Health reconsider its stance, revealing the hospital had collected $4 million from its New Dapto Road car park but had not spent a cent creating additional parking facilities.

NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner eventually bowed to public pressure and pledged funds for a new 600-space parking station, adjoining the existing structure. - Cydonee Mardon

EMERGENCY SERVICES

For three days the community hoped for a miracle when Towradgi boy Eliachim Muteba was dragged into the ocean on Monday, January 24.

The eight-year-old disappeared about 6.35pm after heading out for a dip off Corrimal Beach with an 11-year-old female relative. Moments after entering the water the Congolese-born boy was dragged under by a rip, with one witness likening the moment to the violence of "a tiger grabbing a human being".

Emergency crews scoured the waters off Towradgi and Corrimal beaches in the hope of returning him to his heartbroken mother, Therese Milolo.

Eliachim's body was discovered off Woonona on Thursday, January 26, about four kilometres from where the ocean took him.

The Wollongong Church of Christ rallied around Eliachim's grief-stricken family, holding a moving memorial service for the youngster, attended by more than 600 people. - Michelle Webster

EDUCATION

The Illawarra's education community could be forgiven for being confused after a tumultuous year in school funding reforms.

The issue came to a head in September, when the federal government promised Australian schools $6.5 billion to implement its Gonski review findings.

One week later, the NSW government revealed plans to slash $1.7 billion and cut 1800 jobs from TAFE and public schools.

This left Illawarra schools in a spin, with NSW Teachers Federation regional organiser Nicole Calnan saying no student's education was safe in the wake of the cuts. Primary Principals Association president and Albion Park Public School principal Jim Cooper said he was devastated because they would likely lead to an increased workload for principals and teachers.

As the school year ended this month, it was unclear whether the federal government would earn state support to go ahead with the funding overhaul in the new year. - Kate McIlwain

THE PORT

The NSW government dropped a bombshell on the region in its June budget when it announced plans to lease Port Kembla.

Treasurer Mike Baird argued leasing the port for 99 years would give the government more funds for infrastructure, and even promised $100 million of the estimated $500 million from the lease would be spent in the Illawarra.

There was strong community backlash to the news.

The Save Our Ports group held a protest rally in August, gaining support from Throsby MP Stephen Jones and South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris.

Mr Baird told Parliament in October there would be no funds available for stages two and three of the Princes Highway upgrade if the port wasn't leased.

Despite community opposition the government pushed ahead, calling for expressions of interest in October and, last month, passed legislation allowing the lease to take place. It is understood the successful bidder will sign a lease agreement some time in the first half of 2014. - Glen Humphries

HIGHER EDUCATION

A new vice-chancellor, and a major restructure, were the big news items at the University of Wollongong last year.

Professor Paul Wellings arrived in January from a post as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lancaster.

However, he was no stranger to Australia, having spent almost 20 years with the CSIRO as a research ecologist and later its deputy chief executive.

He has made clear his intention to have UOW move from the top 2 per cent of universities in the world to the top 1 per cent.

As part of that focus, the university announced its biggest restructure in 20 years. Combining 11 faculties into five super faculties was a major component of the plan, which was passed by the university council in October.

The new super faculties of business; engineering and information sciences; law, humanities and the arts; science, medicine, and health; and social sciences will be in place from early 2013. - Lisa Wachsmuth

INDUSTRY

There was anger in the Illawarra after asbestos was found in supposedly clean soil shipped from Sydney's Barangaroo development site to Port Kembla.

Developer Lend Lease had struck a deal with the Port Kembla Port Corporation to ship about 600,000 tonnes of fill from the site for use in land reclamation at the port. Several parties including the NSW Environment Protection Authority spruiked the environmental benefits of truck-free transport.

But concerns the shipments would contain contaminated soil from Barangaroo, despite a "stringent" screening process, were justified when chunks of bonded asbestos were spotted as the first ship was unloaded.

The EPA quickly revoked the exemption that allowed Lend Lease to ship the soil for re-use.

But that was small comfort to the waterfront workers who unloaded the ship. Unions also banned workers from handling any further shipments from Barangaroo.

Last month, the Mercury revealed Lend Lease had abandoned the idea of seeking a new exemption and now planned to truck the contaminated soil already stockpiled at Port Kembla out of the region. - Chris Paver

WOLLONGONG

The NSW corruption watchdog closed its files on the Wollongong City Council corruption inquiry in September, bringing an end to a saga that spanned more than four years and captured the attention of the nation.

Headlined by an explosive two-week public hearing in February 2008, the Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry prompted the sacking of the city's councillors and resulted in the commission flagging a possible 139 criminal charges against 11 individuals - including councillors, developers and public servants.

In the end, just 21 charges were laid against six people.

Only three individuals - Wollongong developers Frank Vellar and Glen Tabak and former councillor Frank Gigliotti - were found guilty on a total of seven charges.

The commission confirmed it would not proceed with court action against former town planner Beth Morgan or Mr Vellar regarding the duo's alleged conduct in handling the Quattro development application. - Shannon Tonkin

KIAMA

There was a changing of the guard at the Kiama Municipal Council in 2012.

Six weeks before the September local government elections, popular Kiama Mayor Sandra McCarthy announced she would not be standing for re-election after 17 years on the council, the past 12 as mayor.

Her decision not to stand, along with five other serving councillors, left the September council election a wide-open race.

At the September 8 election, the Brian Petschler-Mark Honey ticket recorded 28.9 per cent of first-preference votes, ahead of the Kiama Greens, which secured 23 per cent.

Later that month, Cr Petschler was elected unopposed as Kiama's new mayor by councillors.

Cr Petschler, who was general manager of Kiama Municipal Council from 1986 to 2001, is the first male mayor of Kiama since 1991.

Meanwhile, after 17 years on the council, veteran Kiama councillor Warren Steel also realised his long-held ambition when he was chosen by fellow councillors as the new deputy mayor. - Alex Arnold

CULTURE

New players made their mark on Wollongong's nightlife in 2012, winning praise and packed openings for getting aboard the small bars trend.

The late-2011 opening of Keira Street's Red Square was among the first signs that winds of change were blowing through the city's once-monopolised nightlife.

Art Bar, on the corner of Crown and Kembla streets, looked poised to add further diversity in June, but red tape forced owners to abandon their plans.

Operators of pop-up bar The Drop also hit insurmountable licensing hurdles, failing to open as planned in July.

But other licensing applications did make it through the process.

Prohibition era-inspired venue His Boy Elroy opened in a forgotten Globe Lane building in October, followed a month later by style spot Dagwood on Market Street.

Howlin' Wolf and Living Room were also added to the array, while fine dining stalwart Lorenzo Pagnam revealed plans to open a bar next to his Keira Street restaurant in January. - Angela Thompson

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