The Central Oregonian editorial staff selects the top 10 news stories of 2016
Many will remember 2016 as a year of significant change, particularly as the year came to a close with an historic presidential election at the national level and a major shakeup in Crook County leadership as well.
More than ever, social media gave citizens a platform to discuss issues and communicate their beliefs with the public, which certainly influenced the local election and quite possibly state and federal races as well.
We at the Central Oregonian have compiled a list of 10 stories that we felt impacted the Crook County community the most and generated interest among readers and residents, positive or negative. Below is a summary of each of those news items as we look back on a very eventful year locally and nationwide.
1. As 2016 began, activity surrounding a proposed National Recreation Area on the Ochoco National Forest began to escalate. Oregon Wild first made the proposal for the 360,000-acre federal designation late in the summer of 2015, drawing considerable concern from local residents and outdoor recreation enthusiasts in the weeks that followed.
Oregon Wild held a series of meetings, the last of which took place in mid-January that drew a standing-room only crowd of more than 150 people. Most in attendance had shown up to not only learn more about the proposal, but express their disdain for it. The meeting grew heated and as a result was adjourned earlier than anticipated.
The uproar against the National Recreation Area continued to grow, particularly on a newly created Facebook page that was launched to keep residents apprised of local issues and encourage them to communicate about issues.
In late January, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden hosted a town hall that centered on the National Recreation Area issue and a week later, the Crook County Court hosted a meeting at Carey Foster Hall. Drawing an estimated 600-700 attendees, people were invited to give testimony after which the county officials were expected to give an official stance on the proposal.
While some spoke in support of the proposal, the majority of those who gave testimony voiced their opposition out of concern it would lock multiple groups of people out of the portion of forest Oregon Wild had targeted. Each member of the county court then voiced their official opposition to the proposal.
About a week later, the Prineville City Council held a similar meeting, which again drew about 600 people. Once again, the majority of those who spoke opposed the National Recreation Area proposal, and city leaders likewise voiced official opposition.
Concern that the Oregon Wild proposal might pass at the federal level, regardless of local input, citizens formed an approximately 100-member committee to craft a county natural resources plan. The plan lays out guidelines on public land management for a variety of uses from hunting and fishing to wildfire suppression and mining.
Delivered to the Crook County Court in early May, the plan became a source of controversy. The county court was initially set to adopt it as a policy statement as part of its consent agenda, precluding public discussion, but Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe, speaking as a citizen and not in her official capacity, urged the commissioners to make the plan adoption a discussion item.
Several meetings on the plan ensued during the following months as commissioners and citizens debated whether the plan should pass navigate the land use process or be adopted as a policy statement. While many residents voiced support for the plan, multiple attorneys and public land agency representatives expressed concerns that its adoption would leave the county open to lawsuits.
Citing legal liability concerns, County Judge Mike McCabe and Commissioner Ken Fahlgren voted to reject the plan and Commissioner Seth Crawford voted against rejecting it.
The Natural Resources Plan Political Action Committee decided to table the plan in hopes of bringing it before the county court in January after newly elected official take office. The new court will consist of Crawford as judge, and Jerry Brummer as commissioner. A third member of the court will be appointed by Crawford and Brummer after the two officials are sworn in on Dec. 30.
2. In recent years, the steady release of local inmates due to lack of jail space has taken center stage in Crook County. Utilizing a 16-bed jail in very poor condition and renting 25 beds from Jefferson County left law enforcement well short of local incarceration needs, resulting in up to 100 people awaiting jail time for various offenses.
As the year began, a citizen-led committee took on the massive task of analyzing Crook County's public safety situation to determine if the community needed a new jail, and if so, where it should be located, how many inmates it should house, and how much a jail bond should be.
In late April, the Public Safety Facility Advisory Committee finally went public with its jail recommendation during a joint Prineville City Council and Crook County Court meeting. The group recommended that community leaders seek a tax bond of $10 million to fund construction of a new $17 million jail that would house 76 beds and be located in downtown Prineville near the Crook County Sheriff's Office.
County officials acted swiftly, determined to include the jail bond on the 2016 general election ballot. They hired DLR Group, a consulting firm they had turned to in the past for jail feasibility studies, to complete pre-bond work and help local leaders develop a bond measure in time for the Aug. 19 filing deadline.
The county met the deadline, and public safety and government officials continually promoted the bond while a political action committee formed to campaign on the bond measure's behalf. The measure passed handily, setting off a new chain of events that will continue into the upcoming year.
With taxpayers footing $10 million of the total jail bill, and the City of Prineville pledging $1 million of in-kind services, the county will need to pay $6 million to complete the project. Of that total, $3 million will be pulled from county reserves while the remaining $3 million will come from a loan.
Last week, the county met to discuss funding options and determine what steps should be taken in the months ahead to ensure the project is fully funded. Also, the county recently notified occupants of the Regeneration House emergency men's shelter and frequenters of Rebel's Roost that they will need to relocate to make room for property studies associated with new facility.
Construction of the jail is expected to begin in the late summer or early fall of 2017 with completion in late 2018.
3. Because Mike McCabe decided to retire at the end of his term, the Crook County Court was set to change in 2016 for the first time in six years. As the year began, both sitting commissioners, Seth Crawford and Ken Fahlgren, filed to run for the vacant judge position. Because Fahlgren's term concludes in 2016, he would either win the judge role or lose his seat on the county court. Crawford's commissioner term, meanwhile, ends in 2018, so win or lose, he would remain on the county court. However, if elected judge, he would leave his commissioner seat vacant, creating the need to fill it by appointment.
Following a three-way judge race in the May primary that also included Craig Brookhart, Crawford and Fahlgren advanced to the general election. The race to fill Fahlgren's commissioner position attracted seven candidates, and after the primary, Jason Carr, a Prineville City Councilor, and Jerry Brummer advanced to the general election.
In the general election, Crawford defeated Fahlgren by a 5,850 to 5,541 margin. The race for commissioner was not as close as Brummer won 55 percent of the votes to 45 percent for Carr. Because of the outcome, Crawford and Brummer will be asked to appoint a third county court member to finish the two remaining years of Crawford's commissioner term. The two new court members were sworn in on Dec. 30 and will decide within the coming weeks who they will appoint.
So far, several prior county court candidates have shown public interest in filling the vacated position, including Carr, commissioner candidates Jodie Fleck and Pete Sharp and former judge candidate Walt Wagner. Residents have also voiced support for Mike Mohan, a former county commissioner, although he has not publicly expressed interest in the position thus far.
The Prineville City Council will also change, though not as significantly as the county court. Because Carr ran for county commissioner during the final year of his city council term, he left a vacancy, which was filled by Teresa Rodriguez. Three other city council positions, including mayor, were claimed by incumbents.
4. In June, the Crook County School District closed the historic Crooked River Elementary School campus located on Fairview Street between Third and First streets.
At the end of summer vacation, CRE staff moved into the renovated school building on Southeast Second Street that most recently was known as Cecil Sly Elementary.
The building was renamed Crooked River Elementary School, and the new school mascot is the Mustangs, a nod to Ochoco Elementary School, which closed in June of 2015. The library in the new CRE was named Cecil Sly Library, in honor of a former CCSD superintendent and the name of the former school.
CRE Principal Cheri Rasmussen welcomed 620 students into the "new" school in early September. The remodeled building features a kindergarten wing, a first- through third-grade wing, and a fourth- and fifth-grade wing as well as a music room, gymnasium, cafeteria, and remodeled entry and office.
The CCSD School Board renamed the former Crooked River Elementary campus Pioneer Complex. The building that for many decades housed the primary students was renamed Pioneer South and is being updated. The district's IT department moved into the former library over winter break, and the production kitchen will be ready to go next month.
Pioneer Alternative High School students and staff will move into the west wing of the building during spring break, and students and staff in the behavior program will eventually move into two classrooms in the east wing.
5. The affordable housing shortage in Prineville has come as a result of hundreds of data center construction workers seeking temporary homes in the Prineville area. The workers comprise much of the local motel occupancy and have rented many of the available homes in the area, leaving the community with virtually no rent vacancy.
Several projects to help alleviate the problem are on the horizon.
This fall, the City of Prineville Planning Department received applications for four different housing developments that would add more than 200 additional homes to the market, many of which would likely suit the needs of temporary workers or low-income families.
An RV park application calls for 100 spaces just southwest of Prineville Disposal off of North Main Street. Another RV park project would feature 30 spaces and be located off of Combs Flat Road, across from St. Charles Hospital.
Near the corner of Laughlin Road and Juniper Street, a developer is planning to build on 14 lots situated on a cul-de-sac. Eleven lots would feature single-home dwellings and three others would have duplexes.
In downtown Prineville, a builder wants to convert office spaces above Vintage Cottage to a dorm-style residence. The rooms would range in size from about 150 to 425 square feet, and all occupants would share a common restroom area and TV/community room.
Since February, the Crook County School District has been in the process of selling the Ochoco Elementary School building on the Madras Highway to Housing Works for $600,000.
The local housing authority plans to convert the 1945-era school facility into 29 multifamily units that will house low-income families, veterans, disabled people and survivors of domestic violence. If all goes as planned, construction will begin in late spring.
6. One of the biggest efforts for the City of Prineville during 2016 has been its wastewater wetland project. The wetland idea first originated several years ago when the city was faced with upgrading its wastewater system to an expensive mechanical treatment plant to serve population growth during the next 50 years.
Public works staff consequently began to explore a far less expensive wetland option, which would increase wastewater service capacity while making use of the existing lagoon system the city currently uses to treat its wastewater.
After years of planning, fundraising and seeking permits, the project broke ground early in 2016, and an official groundbreaking on April 22, Earth Day, served as a celebration of the project.
The wetland will not only treat wastewater in a series of 16 ponds, it will include bicycle and hiking trails, bird watching opportunities and informational kiosks that educate visitors on everything from birds and insects to city wastewater treatment and riparian habitat.
Construction of the project moved quickly throughout the months that followed. The wetland's parking lot and trails were paved during the fall, and ponds went into use as people began to frequent the new park.
The park, located off of O'Neil Highway near the edge of Prineville city limits, will officially open to the public on Earth Day, the anniversary of the groundbreaking. It is expected to not only fill a variety of recreational and educational needs, it will save the city approximately $50 million versus construction of a mechanical treatment plant.
7. Crook County Parks and Recreation District saw several changes and improvements to local parks in 2016.
In mid-July, the new Prineville Bike Park opened near Ochoco Creek Park and Juniper Street on land that was part of an easement for the railroad tracks that used to pass by the area.
At the prompting of young BMX riders, Central Oregon Trail Alliance, the City of Prineville, the City of Prineville Railway, and Crook County Parks and Recreation District joined forces to create the park with financial assistance from several organizations and businesses.
The dirt bike park has a beginner and intermediate jump line, featuring rolling dirt hills, which can be accessed from ground level, while the advanced and expert jump lines are accessed from a wood platform atop a start mound.
Just down Juniper Street from the new Bike Park sits the newly resurfaced Skate Park.
Members of the Ford Institute Leadership Program Cohort 3 spent all spring and summer raising money to match a $5,000 grant from The Ford Family Foundation to resurface the deteriorating and unsafe Skate Park. The project ended up costing much more than anticipated, but several community organizations chipped in at the last minute to raise the necessary funds.
Volunteers tore out the chain-link fencing, and the city removed the cracked asphalt. Dreamland Skateparks poured fresh concrete in late August and secured the original jumps. Cohort 3 members held a ribbon cutting to celebrate their success and the opening of the resurfaced skate park.
A citizen-led pool committee formed to look into the possibility of building a new swimming pool or upgrading the existing 66-year-old pool facility. Parks and Rec and the committee invite public input, and they plan to conduct a feasibility study early next year.
What was known as Library Park was renamed Gervais Park – Library Outdoor Learning Center in honor of Wally Gervais, the local developer who donated the park land to the city in 1993. A sign was dedicated earlier this month.
8. A year ago, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over the Oregon spotted frog, contending that the federally protected spotted frog is being harmed by the operation of the Crane Prairie and Wickiup dams on the Deschutes River. Then, on Jan. 11, WaterWatch of Oregon filed a second lawsuit concerning the Oregon spotted frog in U.S. District Court Eugene Division.
This lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, North Unit Irrigation District, Central Oregon Irrigation District, and Tumalo Irrigation District. It claims dams and reservoirs managed by the Bureau and the three irrigation districts had violated the Endangered Species Act and were harming the habitat of the "threatened" Oregon spotted frog.
The Central Oregon Irrigation District provides irrigation water for Powell Butte as well as areas of Deschutes County.
In April, Judge Ann Aiken, of the U.S. District Court of Eugene, denied an injunction against the irrigation districts that would have drastically altered the flow of irrigation water. The judge ruled that the environmental groups had to work with the irrigation interest to find a solution and did not require any changes in current operation.
In early November, Aiken negotiated an agreement that will eliminate some of the uncertainty that Central Oregon irrigation districts have faced. Under the settlement agreement, the irrigation districts would continue to implement some operational changes through July of 2017.
9. Veteran Service Officer and Veteran Service Office department head Angie Gilley was fired by the Crook County Court in early November after an incident at a local Band of Brothers meeting in late October resulted in her renouncing her membership with the organization and publicly withdrawing county support services from the group.
Gilley's actions occurred when Band of Brothers leadership said its vice president was resigning for personal reasons. Gilley had previously learned that the vice president was leaving following confirmation that he falsely claimed to be a Navy Seal.
Fahlgren, who is Gilley's immediate supervisor on the county court, instructed her to reinstate support services and apologize to the Band of Brothers for her actions, or risk losing her job. Gilley stated that the Band of Brothers members deserved to know the truth of why one of their officers resigned, so while she was willing to reinstate support services, she refused to apologize for her actions.
The county court consequently held a disciplinary hearing, during which several veterans spoke in support of Gilley, while others opposed her actions.
During the hearing, Gilley referenced a hostile work environment due to repeated struggles with her employee and fellow veteran service officer Kimberly Phillipp. Gilley said that Fahlgren had failed to adequately address the situation, and consequently refused to return to work unless Phillipp was fired.
The county court unanimously voted that Gilley was insubordinate, due to her refusal to apologize to the Band of Brothers or return to work. However, county officials differed on whether to terminate her employment immediately. Out of concern that Gilley might file a lawsuit, Crawford preferred to continue her employment and if she failed to return to work, discipline or fire her. Fahlgren and McCabe, by contrast, voted to terminate her employment immediately.
10. Molly Gaynor, a fifth-grader at Powell Butte Community Charter School, won a national contest this fall and sang the National Anthem Dec. 5 during the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Her father, Alec Gaynor, discovered the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo National Anthem Contest for youth and encouraged his talented daughter to enter. The recording of Molly singing "The Star Spangled Banner" during the St. Paul Rodeo was voted a favorite on social media and was one of the top three finalists. She won the contest and a trip to the big stage in Las Vegas.
Molly's family and friends, including her mother, Yvette Gaynor, and younger sister, accompanied her to Nevada, where she sang in front of 18,000 rodeo fans and millions more on national television.
The talented youngster wants to be a veterinarian — a singing veterinarian.