Murder and Mayhem
Murder, conspiracy and fear cast several shadows across the Inland Northwest in the past year as high-profile killings and bizarre schemes propelled Spokane into national headlines. In the August beating death of World War II veteran Delbert Belton, Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub says conservative pundits tried to hijack media coverage and score political points by framing the tragedy as "black-on-white" violence, pinning racial frustrations on the accused teenage attackers.
Straub contends the robbery was not about race, but a "disconnected generation" of young people who lack support or investment in the community. He challenged Spokane officials and nonprofits to engage and mentor troubled youth, arguing, "It really is a community responsibility."
The 16-year-old suspects, Demetruis Glenn and Kenan Adams-Kinard, await trial on first-degree murder charges in March.
Amid a nationwide series of poison-laced letter attacks on President Obama and other public agencies, Spokane resident Matthew Buquet was charged with mailing ricin to Obama, the CIA, a local federal judge and two other targets in May. He awaits trial next year.
A videotaped "sucker punch" outside a downtown diner sparked a citywide debate over public safety and "street kids," which Straub argues largely ignored a double-digit decrease in violent crimes downtown. In March, homeowner Gail Gerlach's fatal shooting of an alleged car thief set off a similarly intense discussion about self-defense rights.
Local officers and deputies also fired their weapons several times during confrontations with suspects, resulting in four officer-involved shootings in the Spokane area and at least two in North Idaho. Straub says local officers "will without hesitation place themselves between the community and those who would seek to hurt the community."
Investigators ended the year still seeking a suspect in the case of a fatal shooting on the South Hill they believe "targeted" the victim, 63-year-old businessman Douglas Carlile, who was killed on Dec. 15.
— JACOB JONES
Return to the Center
Last year, Kootenai County Reagan Republicans had been turning red North Idaho even redder, pushing conservative candidates for even ostensibly nonpartisan races like city council, school board and hospital board. That all changed this year when they ran into their first big roadblock: organized opposition.
The pushback started in the spring, when Balance North Idaho, the newly created counterweight to the Reagan Republicans, championed three candidates for the Coeur d'Alene School District Board. Together, the bipartisan group of candidates handed the Reagan Republicans their first big defeat.
That gave Balance North Idaho momentum going into the fall elections. It was a rout. Steve Widmyer easily beat long-time conservative city critic Mary Souza for Coeur d'Alene mayor. The same was true in the city council races: Every candidate Balance North Idaho supported won.
— DANIEL WALTERS
Council Leans Left
Spokane City Council members like to talk about unity. Ask them about their much-discussed liberal/conservative divide, and they'll tell you it's overblown. Many of the group's votes are unanimous (or close), they'll say, and indeed that's sometimes the case. But some of this council's biggest recent votes — the 2013 budget, reorganizing city departments to reduce civil service-tested positions, expanding the city's downtown sit-lie ban — have been decided by a four-member voting bloc. Until now, that bloc has been a conservative, business-friendly group that often lines up behind Mayor David Condon. But with November's election of union-backed former Plan Commission member Candace Mumm, that balance will shift. (Mumm, representing northwest Spokane, will replace conservative councilwoman and one-time Republican state senate candidate Nancy McLaughlin.)
In a contentious, expensive race, Mumm and her opponent, Condon ally Michael Cannon, raised more than $150,000 between them, and PACs funded attack ads on TV and in the mail.
While Mumm says she's eager to work with everyone at City Hall, she was backed by Council President Ben Stuckart and many local progressives who supported him and left-leaning councilmembers Jon Snyder and Amber Waldref.
In 2014, the council is likely to face a new set of controversial votes, and we're likely to see the votes leaning left. That could start as soon as February with a "strong push for urban agriculture" in the city, Stuckart says. "I'm just hoping we can move forward with a strong progressive agenda that benefits everyone and our neighborhoods."
— HEIDI GROOVER
The past decade in Spokane saw the once-great Davenport Hotel restored to its former glory and the once-great Ridpath Hotel sink into further disrepair.
The past year, however, brought good news for fans of both hotels. Walt Worthy, star developer behind the Davenport, decided to move forward on constructing a new high-rise hotel near the Spokane Convention Center. Last year, he had determined "that the cost to build a large convention hotel was too high ... to feel comfortable moving forward," but a scaled-downed plan and a pile of incentives from the Spokane City Council allowed construction on the 15-story hotel to begin.
Whether the expanded convention center across the street will draw enough business to fill up his hotel remains to be seen.
In the meantime, one of the chief villains of the Ridpath saga got his comeuppance. Greg Jeffreys, the scam artist who helped split the Ridpath into convoluted pieces and sold them off at vastly inflated values, pled guilty to four counts of criminal fraud in November.
Ron Wells, the downtown real estate maven specializing in historic properties, has made considerable headway in piecing the Ridpath back together, navigating a tangle of ownership disputes and lawsuits.
He wants to turn the hotel into a complex of small apartments, and he's confident it will actually happen. By November, he was putting up Craigslist advertisements for one-bedroom apartments opening in June 2014.
— DANIEL WALTERS
Another Year, Another Ombudsman Battle
The fight to strengthen the city's Office of Police Ombudsman continued this year with little resolution. The ombudsman is currently allowed to sit in on Spokane Police Department Internal Affairs investigations, but cannot open his own. A proposition passed by voters in February added language to the city charter calling for a "totally independent" ombudsman and a commission to oversee him or her.
But this past fall, after almost two years of negotiations, the city administration announced it had reached a tentative agreement with the police guild. The agreement did not, as some had expected it to, grant the ombudsman any investigative authorities outside the IA process. The mayor and police chief say they believe what was bargained for — the current ombudsman structure (inside the Internal Affairs process) plus a new oversight commission — gives citizens the independence they voted for. Police accountability advocates, like those at the nonprofit Center for Justice, are unsatisfied.
Now, the council has deferred the next ombudsman vote to Feb. 3, and some members are urging the mayor to go back to the bargaining table with the guild and negotiate a contract that includes more authority for the ombudsman.
"In a way, this is like chasing a ghost," Councilman Steve Salvatori said during the vote to defer. "We could have independent investigative authority come right up in front of us and not recognize it because it means something different to everybody."
— HEIDI GROOVER
Rules for Reefer
The year since Washington's voted to legalize recreational marijuana has brought a flurry of public forums, revised documents and history-making decisions. (Plus, a startling number of awkward marijuana jokes from elected officials.)
While unanswered questions — like where pot businesses will store their cash — remain, the feds have largely stood down as Washington and Colorado have gotten into the business of pot. Other states and cities are seeing their own legalization movements, and a majority of Americans are, for the first time, in favor of seeing the drug legalized, according to Gallup.
Tasked with creating a brand-new pot market, the Washington State Liquor Control Board spent the year crafting regulations for how marijuana growers, processors and sellers will be licensed, monitored and required to operate. Over a month-long window this winter, they accepted more than 3,700 applications for marijuana businesses and will now set about licensing those who qualify. Any qualifying grower or processor will be licensed, but stores will be limited based on population. Spokane County will be allowed 18 stores with eight in the City of Spokane and three in the Valley. (More than 60 retail applications have been filed for locations in Spokane County.)
Meanwhile, cities across the state, including Spokane, added their own zoning regulations to determine where pot businesses would be allowed to open. A rule written into the voter-passed initiative keeps the businesses 1,000 feet away from schools, parks and playgrounds, and Spokane added certain areas of town called "Centers and Corridors 1" (for example, Garland Avenue near Monroe Street) to the prohibited zone. When marijuana growers, processors and stores open in the spring and summer of 2014, we're likely to see them in the city's industrial areas, like East Sprague and Hillyard.
— HEIDI GROOVER
In a year of reform and restructuring, Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub has overseen dramatic changes to the daily operations and command hierarchy of the Spokane Police Department. A believer in data-driven, community-based policing, Straub has shifted the SPD to the CompStat model, assigning officers to crime "hot spots" pinpointed through data mapping.
While property crime has continued to increase, Straub says year-to-date statistics show violent crime has dropped 8.5 percent compared to 2012. Straub credits the new targeted policing strategy as well as improved cooperation between the department and other local agencies.
"I think we've begun to turn the corner," he says. "That's a huge, huge accomplishment."
In addition to the internal re-engineering underway, the SPD has received broad reform mandates from the city's Use of Force Commission and the county's Criminal Justice Commission. The Department of Justice also launched a review of department policies. Straub says the department has embraced those reform efforts.
After opening its first downtown substation, the SPD plans to expand its precinct-based policing with captains assigned to geographic areas throughout the city. Officers will also start wearing body cameras and recording race data on citizen contacts this coming year. Straub says he expects to release a new strategic plan for 2014 later this month.
— JACOB JONES
Obamacare's Rocky Rollout
Mention "Obamacare" in a crowded room and depending on the company you keep, your ill-fated conversation starter is bound to incite fierce defenses, rabid mockery or outright confusion.
The rollout of the president's contentious health care reform law has gone smoother in Washington, where the state-run online exchange has performed remarkably well in comparison to the federal government's buggy insurance portal, HealthCare.gov. But Washington Healthplanfinder has been plagued with its own hiccups: In October, a glitch caused some 8,000 people who applied for private insurance plans through the exchange site to receive overestimated tax credit amounts. Insurance shoppers also have complained of excessive waiting times when attempting to reach the exchange's customer service center in Spokane, which has been inundated with unexpectedly high call volumes.
Despite these problems, Washington has been a leader in health insurance enrollments. So far, more than 213,000 Washingtonians have signed up for health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, including 65,000 in private insurance plans and 148,000 in Medicaid.
In Idaho, lawmakers voted to build their own state-run exchange last March after two years of debate but, facing time constraints, allowed the federal government to run the IT platform. Unlike Washington, Idaho has opted not to expand Medicaid under the ACA, leaving as many as 75,000 people in the state uninsured and ineligible for financial assistance to cover the cost of their premiums. Idaho business leaders have urged Gov. Butch Otter to take the federal money and expand health care coverage for low-income people. With primary season approaching, however, it's unlikely the Idaho Legislature will take up the issue of Medicaid expansion this session.
— DEANNA PAN
GMO Food Fight
Supporters of labeling genetically engineered food suffered a big blow in November when Washington voters rejected Initiative 522, 51 to 49 percent.
The ballot measure — which would have required food manufacturers to conspicuously label any products for sale in Washington that contain genetically modified ingredients — enjoyed the public's support early in the election season. In June, polling showed that 66 percent of likely voters supported a labeling law, compared to just 22 percent who opposed it.
But the tide shifted in the fall: $22 million in out-of-state money from big agribusiness and food manufacturing companies committed to defeating I-522 poured into Washington. Labeling opponents, including Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, outspent labeling backers 3-to-1.
Voters in all but eight counties on the western side of the state ultimately decided against I-522. Conceding nine days after the general election, the Yes on 522 campaign vowed to return in 2016 when more voters are likely to cast their ballots. In Olympia next session, lawmakers are preparing to keep the momentum for labeling alive: Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-Shoreline) said she will introduce legislation to keep out-of-state contributors from illegally donating millions of dollars without proper disclosure, as GMA members did before the state attorney general sued the trade group for failing to register as a political committee. Rep. Cary Condotta (R-East Wenatchee), meanwhile, plans to address the possibility of transgenic salmon entering the state marketplace.
— DEANNA PAN
Megaloads March On
Despite opposition from tribal members and environmental activists, there seems to be no stopping massive shipments of oil refinery equipment, otherwise known as megaloads, from rolling through the Pacific Northwest.
This August, protests broke out along Highway 12 in central Idaho — a sinuous, two-lane roadway cutting through the Nez Perce Reservation and federally protected Clearwater-Lochsa Wild and Scenic River Corridor — against a 322-ton General Electric-owned water evaporator creeping toward the Canadian tar sands. More than 30 demonstrators, including several Nez Perce tribal members, were arrested for delaying the load.
A month later, an Idaho district court judge sided with the Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Rivers United, a conservation group, and granted an injunction blocking future megaload shipments from traveling along Highway 12. The GE subsidiary that fought the injunction dropped its appeal and found a new route for shipping its oversized loads through southern Idaho.
Three more megaload shipments bound for a refinery in Montana are expected to trundle through Coeur d'Alene this month and next, and more protests are sure to follow.
— DEANNA PAN