Oh, The Things We'll Remember

From Karl Thompson to coal trains and marriage equality, the legacy of 2012

Oh, The Things We'll Remember
Young Kwak
Karl Thompson, walking into court for his sentencing.

Karl Thompson Behind Bars

Few scandals have shaken Spokane like the controversial death of Otto Zehm in 2006, which upended the community’s faith in justice and sparked widespread calls for police reform. Throughout more than six years, the city struggled with federal investigations, internal conflict and public distrust over the case.

In November, former Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson went before the U.S. District Court for sentencing on federal charges of excessive force and lying to investigators about his violent confrontation with Zehm. Judge Fred Van Sickle ordered Thompson to serve four years and three months in prison.

A police officer for 36 years, Thompson now goes by another title: Federal Inmate No. 12755-085.

Prison records show Thompson continues to serve his sentence at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. He faces three years of supervised probation upon release. His attorney has filed an appeal in the case.

Breean Beggs, an attorney for the Zehm family, said Thompson’s long-awaited sentencing gave the family a chance to share Zehm’s story and begin their healing process.

In response to the case, the Spokane Police Department has implemented new accountability protocols and increased training on interactions with the mentally ill. Beggs says he hopes those cultural changes and other reforms will continue into the future.


The Ridpath Ekes Toward Revival

For more than a century the Ridpath Hotel boasted celebrities, and even presidents, as guests. But as downtown Spokane became revitalized in the last decade — as River Park Square was constructed and the Davenport Hotel was resurrected — the Ridpath plunged into disrepair.

In its final days as an open hotel, the Ridpath was split up and sold off piece by piece, sometimes at clearly inflated prices.

It got even worse after it closed. The grand piano was stolen. Teen vandals broke in, causing an extra $40,000 in damage. Owner after owner slid into bankruptcy. One of the building’s owners, Greg Jeffreys, has been targeted in a lawsuit and investigated by the FBI for fraud.

The hotel became the passion of relatively inexperienced developer Stephen Antonietti, as he strove to put the pieces together, get the building up to code, fix the sprinkler systems and reverse a do-not-occupy order. He hoped to secure investors willing to turn the Ridpath into a massive hotel/entertainment complex.

But today, the developer most poised to transform the Ridpath is not Antonietti. It’s Ron Wells, a developer renowned for historical preservation, who wants to turn the Ridpath tower and the adjacent Y Building into apartment and condo units. (The nearby Halliday Building and the Ridpath Executive Court across the street will be untouched.)

Wells has until next September to secure all the financing, and until then, he’s the only party with the opportunity to save the building.

“We’re up to our elbows in it,” Wells says. “I’m not going to proclaim victory until we get through a couple more steps on the loan writing.”


Tom Luna’s Reforms Are Overturned

In 2011, Idaho Superintendent Tom Luna successfully convinced the Idaho Legislature to enact some of the most sweeping educational reforms in the nation: teacher unions had to bargain in the open, could only negotiate over wages and benefits and saw tenure replaced by one- or two-year contracts. Extra pay was handed out to teachers who volunteered for extra tasks, like mentoring other teachers. Teachers at schools that performed well on standardized tests received additional bumps in pay. Most controversially, the state planned to spend a considerable amount of money to assign each district one laptop for every student.

Some Idaho teachers were outraged, seeing their rights curtailed and money that could have been used for their pay directed toward computers. Opposition was widespread.

While Luna easily shrugged off a recall attempt, he wasn’t as lucky when it came to voter-led referenda. Despite, or maybe because of, Idaho’s conservative leanings, his reforms were all scuttled in the November election.

In a roundtable with Boise reporters in November, Luna said he hears the voters’ choice clearly.

“I have full confidence in Idahoans educating themselves and then making a decision based on the information that they’ve gathered,” Luna said.

But he also hasn’t given up hope, floating the possibility of restoring the more popular pieces of his reform.

“I think it’s important that education reform doesn’t stop,” Luna said. “We just had a 22-month discussion about education in Idaho at a level of detail that we’ve never had before.”


CdA’s Leadership Survives a Recall Attempt

When Spokane recalled its mayor in 2005, it was over allegations the mayor used his office to attract young men he met on a gay website. When some citizens from Coeur d’Alene tried unsuccessfully to recall their mayor this year, it was mostly about a disagreement over a field.

McEuen Field, the major waterfront park in Coeur d’Alene’s downtown, had been eyed for a major overhaul. Critics, calling it “McRuined Field,” were incensed with the changes, especially over the initial plans to tear down the ballpark and boat launch, and the fact they were never allowed to vote on them.

“I could not see any way that we can do great planning for the best public space the city owns through a public vote,” Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem said earlier this year. The election in 2011 brought in two new City Council members in favor of holding a public vote, but not enough to overwhelm Bloem’s tie-breaking vote.

Critics had one more option: recall Bloem and the three Council members who supported the plan. But their attempt quickly ran into problems. An updated version of the McEuen plan was cheaper and kept the boat launch, denying the RecallCDA group of some of its biggest arguments.

In June, the recall attempt fell a few hundred valid signatures short of making the ballot, and in September, construction on McEuen began.

But Frank Orzell, the recall’s organizer, told The Inlander he’s preparing for “phase two”: the City Council elections in 2013.


The Coalman Cometh

Spokane is railroad country, as if we needed reminding. But reminded we were when Lilac City came to sit in the middle of a tussle over the future of coal exports. A series of proposed West Coast coal shipping facilities could transform Spokane into an even bigger artery for pushing coal out to the Pacific Ocean and on to China.

The worries: more trains choking up traffic — and possibly, emergency vehicles — at railroad crossings; the prospect that coal dust could harm people; and general bad karma that shipping carbon to China would make the world hot beyond relief.

Coal exports to Asia from the United States grew 176 percent between 2009 and 2010, or 17.9 million short tons’ worth. If the coal shipping facilities are approved, opponents say that could mean as many as 40 new coal trains rumbling through Spokane — every day.

There’s also the rub that Spokanites — who will likely pay for any new infrastructure due to the increases — won’t get many of the jobs or direct economic benefit out of the deal.

Proponents say any new jobs are necessary — and proved it by hiring day laborers to support coal at a December public hearing in Spokane.

This argument won’t die soon; a ruling on the environmental impact of the project won’t come until 2014 or 2015.


Privatizing Liquor

The booze-loving voters spoke, and so it was done. After nearly 80 years of state monopoly over hard alcohol sales, Washington made its long-debated transition to a private liquor market on June 1.

Almost 170 state stores either closed or went independent as eager grocery and big box stores jumped into the booze business. At the register, some customers cheered the new convenience while others lamented prices higher than expected.

State Liquor Control Board member Chris Marr says implementing the voter-approved Initiative 1183 to privatize liquor made for a challenging combination of new regulation and distribution logistics.

“When you transition a billion-dollar industry based on an initiative, there are a few snags,” he says. “There were so many questions going in.”

So far, Marr says the new tax revenue from private liquor sales has exceeded expectations, but the liquor board also faces multiple lawsuits stemming from the transition pains to a private market.

Marr says many people had looked forward to greater liquor selection and competition driving down prices. They found themselves disappointed. But overall, they did get the state out of the liquor business.

“I think at the end of the day people were right,” he says.


Legalizing Pot

Washington got plenty of potheads’ and federal authorities’ attention when it, along with Colorado, legalized recreational marijuana by popular vote in November.

Initiative 502 legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana — 1 ounce of bud, 16 ounces of solid infused products or 72 ounces of infused liquid — for those 21 and older and established a DUI provision, set to penalize anyone driving with more than 5 nanograms of active THC in their blood. The measure promised a forthcoming regulatory structure for growers and sellers, and steep tax revenue from sales of the drug.

Opponents worried about the DUI limit, arguing heavy marijuana users like medical patients would be over the limit without being impaired. In the end, their efforts were disorganized and muffled by supporters calling for a practical “new approach.” Using the tactic of pairing regulations with ads featuring soccer-mom types, 502 supporters raised $6 million and won the vote 56 to 44 percent.

Now, the state Liquor Control Board has a year to set up the rules and regulatory structure that will govern pot growers and sellers. Board spokesman Mikhail Carpenter says it will take that full year to build a completely new structure. So far, they’ve filed an initial request for public comment specifically about how to license marijuana growers. (You can email your thoughts to rules@liq.wa.gov.) They’re taking written comments until Feb. 10 and plan to schedule at least one public hearing in April.


Equality by Popular Vote

Before this year, gay marriage foes were 32 for 32 in defeating same-sex marriage at the ballot box. This time out, they lost all their fights.

Washington became the first state in the West to give same-sex couples marriage rights, and one of the first three states to do it by popular vote, when Referendum 74 passed. In what came as a surprise to probably no one, the measure was carried by the west side. Of Washington’s counties, just eight passed R-74, and all but one were west of the Cascades. The measure lost by 11 points in Spokane County, though it eked out a 2-point win inside city limits.

Like other marriage fights across the country, it was a battle of opponents who viewed homosexuality as sinful or unnatural versus supporters who emphasized the meaning of one word for equal rights.

“Domestic partnerships are not the same,” pro-R-74 campaign manager Zach Silk told The Inlander on Election Day. “You don’t get down on one knee to ask someone to domestic partner you. No one dreams of their son or daughter growing up to be in a civil union. This is a fundamental principle of fairness and equality.”

Couples lined up at courthouses across the state to receive marriage licenses on Dec. 6, and could begin marrying on Dec. 9. On that first day, 23 couples got their licenses in Spokane County and more than 600 applied statewide.


‘Operation Red Light’

With a catchy name and officers from 11 agencies, authorities raided eight local “oriental spas” they suspected as fronts for prostitution this summer, arresting the owners and seizing their belongings.

The owners were released pending charges. Airway Heights Police Chief Lee Bennett, whose agency led the investigation, says officers have since catalogued evidence — equipment, computers, cars they say spa owners bought with their illegal profits — that proves the spa owners were profiting from prostitution. They’ve forwarded all but the last few details onto Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker’s office, Bennett says, and it will be up to that office to bring charges. Tucker did not return calls for comment.

“Operation Red Light” relied on confidential informants and undercover officers who gathered evidence about the dark-windowed buildings around town. Inside, police say, johns would use code words to order sex with prostitutes.

After the raids, some local public health professionals said the closure of the spas would force more women into street prostitution, walking East Sprague at night and getting into whatever car would pick them up. Bennett and his team argued they couldn’t turn a blind eye to illegal activity simply because it was the lesser of two evils. His department dedicated its only detective to the case along with two other officers part-time, spending about $120,000 on wages and planning to spend another $40,000 before the case was finished.

“The prostitution industry itself is inherently an unsafe business,” Bennett said. “It was something we had to do.”


Democrats All Shook Up

Nevermind that Democrats re-elected President Barack Obama and held onto the governor’s office with the election of former Congressman Jay Inslee. Or that Sen. Maria Cantwell won by a wide margin across the state. Or that Washington is now officially pot- and gay-friendly.

But it was a turbulent year for Democrats in Olympia. First, three Democrats joined with Republicans to help push a budget bill through the state Senate.

Then, Sen. Lisa Brown — the Senate majority leader who represented Spokane — surprised the chattering classes this spring by announcing her retirement. Democrat Rep. Andy Billig won the election for her seat in November — with Brown aide and Democrat Marcus Riccelli filling his seat.

Now, Democrats face the prospect of an extended Republican takeover of the Senate, as a handful of Democrats seek to create a power-sharing coalition with the Republican minority.

It’s too soon to tell whether the remaining Democrats will accept power sharing, and if not, what will happen. Tangled stuff, all this. And plenty of fodder for 2013.


North Idaho State Fair @ Kootenai County Fairgrounds

Aug. 19-28
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