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Decorators adorn trees for annual Festival of Trees

CEDAR FALLS — From white cocoa mugs stamped with gold “PE” monograms and the train snaking around the tree base, it’s a pretty sure thing onlookers will be looking for the “first gift of Christmas” among packages beneath the tree celebrating the children’s classic “The Polar Express.”

“What’s more magical than the Polar Express?” asked Michelle Visokey of Cedar Falls, who decorated the Christmas tree for the Sartori Foundation with her daughters, Laura and Molly.

It is one of 30 trees decorated primarily by volunteers for the 29th annual Festival of Trees.

This year’s theme is “The Magic of Christmas.” Presented by Sartori Memorial Hospital, the holiday event officially opens Wednesday and runs through Sunday at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on the University of Northern Iowa campus.

Gallery hours are noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday (closed from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a private event); 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

There also will be 15 wreaths and 16 table settings on display.

The opening Festival at Night takes place from 5 to 7:30 p.m. tonight at the GBPAC. Admission is $20 at the door.

This is the fifth tree the Visokeys have decorated in the past few years. It’s an activity Laura described as “fun,” although Molly admits she was out-voted on her choice of tree theme. “I wanted it to be the Nutcracker,” she said, because the Minnesota Ballet will present the seasonal favorite in performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Great Hall.

“We knew what the theme would be at the end of last year’s festival. I’ve been thinking about it all year and gathering things along the way. We’ve been texting back and forth when we see things we think we should get,” said Michelle. Her husband, Dr. David Visokey, is a pulmonologist for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare.

Elegant red and gold decorations adorned a tall tree decorated by members from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The core group of decorators has participated for the past 15 years, although there are a few relatively new members. “We work as a team, and each person is assigned a job. It’s done with love,” said Melanie Hawkins of Cedar Falls.

“It’s a tradition for us,” explained Jennifer Gillins, also of Cedar Falls. The group gathered earlier this fall to make gold stars and letter ornaments with phrases like “One Star,” “One Christ” and “One Night” for their “Believe in the Magic of Christmas” theme.

“This comes at a good time of year. I love that it’s at the beginning of the season before Thanksgiving and all the craziness of the holidays,” added Deborah Bunker of Cedar Falls.

Annette Ebaugh of Cedar Falls decorated a white tree with a pink theme in honor of her daughter, Christina Sterling, who has battled breast cancer.

This is Ebaugh’s first year to participate in the festival. Her collection of “Royal Rose” tea cups, demitasse cups and family heirloom teapot are displayed, along with bright pink ornaments and flowers.

“I’m vice president of the Denver Garden Club, that’s why the flowers. I love to decorate — I have 12 themed trees in my house, and this pink and white tree will go in my dining room after the festival,” she said.

Trees will be judged tonight and ribbons awarded in professional and amateur categories. The public can vote on the people’s choice award. Several 4- to 7 1/2-foot trees will be available for purchase or bid by silent auction. The trees then will be delivered to the purchaser’s home or business.

While tree decorators worked, Linda Wessels and her crew from the hospital gift shop were busily arranging displays at the Festival Marketplace Gift Shoppe.

Approximately 52 boxes were opened and unpacked by volunteers Monday morning. It takes Wessels and her helpers about eight hours to unpack boxes and create vignettes that range from Christmas and winter decorating items and home accessories to pretty gloves and ruana wraps.

Sales are always brisk. “After the festival closed last year, it only took an hour to pack everything up that was left,” she added.

The marketplace is open during gallery hours.

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New sex assault allegation hits Moore; withdrawal calls grow

WASHINGTON — A second woman abruptly emerged Monday to accuse Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her as a teenager in the late 1970s, this time in a locked car, further roiling the Alabama Republican’s candidacy for an open Senate seat. Leaders of Moore’s own party intensified their efforts to push him out of the race.

Anticipating a tearful Beverly Young Nelson’s allegations at a New York news conference, Moore’s campaign ridiculed her attorney, Gloria Allred, beforehand as “a sensationalist leading a witch hunt.” The campaign said Moore was innocent and “has never had any sexual misconduct with anyone.” He insisted he was in the race to stay.

In the latest day of jarring events, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Moore essentially declared open war on each other. McConnell said the former judge should quit the race over a series of recent allegations of past improper relationships with teenage girls. No, said Moore, the Kentucky senator is the one who should get out.

Cory Gardner of Colorado, who heads the Senate GOP’s campaign organization, said not only should Moore step aside but if he should win “the Senate should vote to expel him because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.”

McConnell took a remarkably personal swipe at his party’s candidate for a Senate seat the GOP cannot afford to lose. “I believe the women,” he said, marking an intensified effort by leaders to ditch Moore before a Dec. 12 special election that has swung from an assured GOP victory to one Democrats could conceivably swipe.

Moore, an outspoken Christian conservative and former state Supreme Court judge, fired back at McConnell on Twitter.

“The person who should step aside is @SenateMajLdr Mitch McConnell. He has failed conservatives and must be replaced. #DrainTheSwamp,” Moore wrote.

Nelson’s news conference came after that exchange and injected a new, sensational accusation in the story.

She said Moore was a regular customer at the restaurant where she worked after school in Gadsden, Alabama. She said he would talk to her and sometimes pull the ends of her hair, which she considered flirtatious but didn’t bother her.

One night when she was 16, Moore offered to drive her home, she said, but instead parked the car behind the restaurant and touched her breasts and locked the door to keep her inside. She said he squeezed her neck while trying to push her head toward his crotch and tried to pull her shirt off.

Moore finally stopped and as she got out of the car, he warned her no one would believe because he was a county prosecutor, Nelson said. She said she quit her job the following day.

Nelson said that shortly before that, days before Christmas, she’d brought her high school yearbook to the restaurant and Moore signed it. A copy of her statement distributed at the news conference included a picture of what she said was his signature and a message saying, “To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say, ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Nelson said she told her younger sister about the incident two years later, told her mother four years ago and told her husband before they married. She said she and her husband supported Donald Trump for president.

Last Thursday, The Washington Post reported in 1979 when he was 32, Moore had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl and pursued romantic relationships with three other teenage girls around the same period. The women made their allegations on the record and the Post cited two dozen other sources.

Moore has called the allegations “completely false and misleading,” but in an interview last week he did not unequivocally rule out dating teenage girls when he was in his early 30s. Asked by conservative radio host Sean Hannity if that would have been usual for him, Moore said, “It would have been out of my customary behavior.”

McConnell, speaking Monday at an event in Louisville, Kentucky, said Moore “should step aside” and acknowledged that a write-in effort by another candidate was possible. He said, “We’ll see,” when asked if the Republican alternative could be Sen. Luther Strange, whom Moore ousted in a September party primary.

But Strange told reporters late Monday “a write-in candidacy is highly unlikely.”

McConnell and Moore have had an openly antagonistic history for some time. Moore was backed during his primary campaign by Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief White House adviser who is openly seeking GOP Senate challengers who will pledge to dump McConnell. A political action committee linked to McConnell spent heavily but unsuccessfully on Strange’s behalf.

The tumult comes with Republicans holding a scant 52-48 Senate majority as the GOP rushes to push a massive tax cut through Congress by Christmas. Facing near-certain unanimous opposition by Democrats, Republicans can lose just two GOP senators, and a Democratic pickup in Alabama would narrow their margin of error to just one.

Traer utility vote stands at 'yes;' Alliant asks for recount

TRAER — With four more provisional ballots on the books, Traer Municipal Utilities was given the option to take control of natural gas service — assuming the unofficial count holds after this morning’s canvass.

The vote now stands at 269 “yes” votes and 262 “no” votes, a seven-vote difference, according to Tama County Auditor Laura Kopsa. The vote was to be certified today.

Five provisional ballots were cast during last Tuesday’s municipal election on whether TMU should take over natural gas service from Alliant Energy, the current provider.

Four of those ballots ultimately were approved and counted, and gave two votes to each side, said Kopsa. No absentee ballots arrived in the ensuing days.

Mike Wagner, spokesperson for Alliant Energy, said the utility will request a recount from Tama County “in the coming days.”

“Based on the very small difference in votes, it is in our customers’ best interest to recount the ballots to verify the final count,” Wagner wrote in an email to media.

Pat Stief, general manager of TMU, said a recount was fine with them.

“We are confident that the vote count from Tuesday’s election will stand in our favor despite the recount Alliant is requesting,” Stief wrote in an email to The Courier. “TMU is prepared to move forward with the condemnation process to determine the fair market value of the gas franchise.”

If the final total stands, the vote will not automatically give TMU control of the gas service. Instead, it will allow TMU to pursue legal condemnation of Alliant’s claim to the natural gas infrastructure at a fair market value. That legal process could take months or even years.

Wagner said if TMU went ahead with voters’ wishes, “the expense to the citizens of Traer’s will be significant.”

“Utilizing the recount process assures that the community’s wishes have been heard on such a costly matter,” Wagner added.

Stief argued TMU has already factored in those costs.

“We have repeatedly stated, if it is determined not to be a feasible, smart investment for Traer’s future, we simply will not proceed,” Stief said. “Based on the results of the feasibility study and two separate system appraisals, we are confident we can provide competitive, reliable and safe gas service to the citizens of Traer.”

Waterloo fireworks ordinance still stalled

WATERLOO — City Council members shot down a plan to limit fireworks use in Waterloo to four hours on the Fourth of July.

But they still lacked consensus despite voting 6-0 Monday to reject an ordinance that would have allowed residents to explode fireworks only between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. July 4.

“Back to the drawing board,” said Mayor Quentin Hart.

State lawmakers legalized the sale and use of consumer fireworks this year for the first time in 80 years, allowing them to be used from June 1 through July 8 and again from Dec. 10 through Jan. 3.

Cities are allowed to ban or further restrict the use of fireworks but cannot limit their sale.

Councilmen Ron Welper and Bruce Jacobs said they favored following the lead of Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Iowa City and Cedar Falls in moving ahead with a complete ban.

“I think it’s absolutely too hard to police,” Jacobs said. “I think it’s just a simpler road to say in the city limits we’re not going to allow you to shoot off fireworks.”

Jacobs said he had heard numerous complaints last summer about fireworks, which was very hard on some veterans and others with post traumatic stress disorder.

Other councilmen, including Jerome Amos Jr. and Tom Powers, said they favored at least some period of time for legal fireworks use.

“I don’t think a total ban is a direction we should be going,” Amos said.

Councilmen Pat Morrissey said he was OK with a short fireworks period but also wanted to add ordinance provisions requiring fireworks stands to be in industrial zoning districts, city guidelines posted at fireworks stores and limits on use by underage or intoxicated persons.

Councilman Steve Schmitt said he wanted to set a one-day fireworks window for the coming New Year’s holiday and then seek to form a committee with Cedar Falls and Evansdale to discuss having a common ordinance for the metro area.

“I think all we’re going to do is create chaos for all of our public safety group,” said Schmitt.

Cedar Falls is in the process of implementing a fireworks ban. Evansdale has approved June 30 through July 4 and Dec. 28 through Jan. 1 for fireworks use.

Councilman Tom Lind was absent.

Police Capt. Joe Leibold said Police Chief Dan Trelka has suggested allowing a few days around both the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve for fireworks use. Enforcing a ban or shorter time frame would be difficult.

“I equate it to buying alcohol,” Leibold said. “If you can buy alcohol in the city and told people not to drink it, how successful would you be at enforcing it?”

Hart said he expects the measure to return for additional discussion next week.